A civic association helps to draw attention to incidents of domestic violence against women working in sex business. They have managed to start cooperation with the police and with women working on the street or in brothels.
Pointing guns at their heads, threatening with a knife, rapes, fights, strangling or insults. A white van parked near the Bratislava refinery Slovnaft has been a witness of countless stories of similar nature.
Gradually, the van is approached by women working in sex business at the infamous city exit. Some of them stay longer and talk about problems they have with “customers”, officials or doctors.
Dozens of cars pass by, a no-name car does not attract their attention. Hot tea, coffee, condoms, HIV or syphilis tests, legal aid, syringe exchange and monitoring of violence in a community which is highly unpopular among local residents.
No logo, no colours, no marketing slogans. This is replaced by legal aid, medical prevention and dozens of stories about work in the night streets of the capital city.
Sex, drugs, violence
The civic association Odyseus is very well-known in the streets of Bratislava. For 17 years, they have been involved in low-threshold work with women who provide sexual services for money and with injecting drug users. Odyseus goes to the field four times a week. Apart from the parking lot near a secondary school dormitory, they also visit Panónska street and the infamous Pentagon building in Vrakuňa.
“We do not wear any visible signs indicating who we are. We do not wish to attract unwanted attention and we want to provide our clients with the best possible privacy and anonymity, ” explains Olívia Strelková, responsible for the Red Umbrella program within the non-profit organization. The program is the only one of its kind in Slovakia, focusing on combating violence against women working in sex business.
“It is a taboo topic, nobody wants to talk about it very much, ” explains Strelková. The first survey among women working in this area was carried out seven years ago.
Out of 21 women working in the street sex business, twenty respondents have experienced violence at work. Fifty per cent of them repeatedly. A closer look into street life should be created by the third survey currently lead by Odyseus in the field.
“We want to identify the most frequent forms of violence against women, we want to know what our clients struggle with on a daily basis, ” said Strelková.
When we hear the expression sex business, most of us have a stereotypical pattern in mind: a provocatively dressed Roma woman at the age of 20 to 40 addicted to drugs living outside the law.
“Reality is different, such generalizations are hard to make. Some of the women are single, others have families and children. Some take drugs, others are strictly against them and do not even drink alcohol, ” says young lawyer. Strelková refuses the myth that women working on the street are predominantly young: “Many people cannot imagine women older than 40 involved in sex business, but we work with such women, too. ”
During the socialist era, they were identified as parasites, today, the public considers them trash.
Sandra is striking person, due to her charisma and looks. She calls herself a walking history of sex business in Bratislava with a smile on her face. She did not give us consent to publish her photograph or her full name.
In the early 1990s, she was a young student enjoying night life in the capital. “Those were strange days, people got in touch with freedom and new opportunities,” says Sandra on the post-revolution atmosphere in her hometown. Several years after the Velvet Revolution, the rule of strength was more important than any legislation.
Sex could be bought in the city centre, then the business moved to Krížna street and after the motorway bypasses were constructed, exits out of the city became the centre.
“I was young and I went to discos quite often. When we left, we used to go to buffets where “professionals” used to go. Cars used to honk at us, sometimes they even stopped and shouted. ” She refused to offer such services to men. “I didn’t take them seriously, ” adds Sandra.
The breaking point came when she and her friend hitchhiked to a disco in the outskirts.
“The driver gave us a specific offer. I remember telling my friend – see, this is how it starts, ” says Sandra laughingly.
The seamstress with no job refused sex for money at that time, but something has changed.
“I started to think about it. I needed money, so about a month later, I went to try it on the street, ” says Sandra honestly. Her night activities became more and more frequent, until they turned into a routine.
Later, she moved from the city centre to Krížna street. From there, she followed her colleagues to Vajnorská street.
“I went there as I would have gone to any other job. I took care of my household, I took care of myself and I had no social worries.” She left the street two years ago – and went to a brothel.
From the street to the web
“Today, sex business is online, in brothels. It is very difficult to get somewhere with no doors,” comments Sandra on current situation. As the internet and smartphones have become widespread, sex for money is more accessible and more anonymous than ever before.
“Everything is hidden behind four walls. On the street, it is unpleasant if people come to look at you and even take pictures, as if they were in a zoo, ” says the sex business worker. According to her, many women in Bratislava have a normal job and earn extra money in sex business in secret. The common image of young inexperienced students moving from small towns to Bratislava selling their bodies is one of many traditional myths, Sandra says.
Thanks to her character and past, Sandra is a valuable source of information for Odyseus, but she is also a bridge between a closed community and the outside world.
She also perceives herself as the first sex business activist in Slovakia. She has been working in the Red Umbrella since 2010. She obtains information from the field, but she is also the first contact person for women in sex business seeking help.
“I noticed Odyseus back at Krížna street, where they helped girls with syringe exchange. I refused them vigorously, I have never taken drugs and I didn’t want to be associated with such people, ” explains Sandra. She was avoiding activists for several years.
She changed her mind when first problems with the police arose. “They started to search our handbags, threw us out because of unauthorized assembly, they were checking cars passing by, ” says Sandra.
After receiving legal aid, she started to attend discussions, workshops and took materials for her colleagues.
“We do not defend forced prostitution or human trafficking. The main aim of our work is health protection and ensuring respect of fundamental rights of women in sex business, ” stresses Olívia Strelková.
“People may not like the path these women have chosen, but it is not right to humiliate them and hurt them, ” says Strelková.
Red Umbrella has experienced cases of bottles thrown out of a car at them or being spat at. They are working with approximately two hundred women involved in sex business, fifty of whom are regular clients. In autumn, they are holding a meeting with the police in order to find solutions to help women in sex business who are victims of violence.
She left a law firm and started working on the street for a low-threshold civic association. She admits that before she saw the field, she had prejudices, too.
Project coordinator OLÍVIA STRELKOVÁ (26) talks about working with women in sex business and cooperation with the police.
How did you get involved in sex business and human rights?
“Two years ago, I got my law degree. During my studies, I worked in a law firm and later as a trainee lawyer. I concentrated on business law. I am an open person, I like working with people and I wanted to do something useful. I wanted a meaningful job. I didn’t want to sit in an office and help others establish their companies.
A friend of mine worked in the civic association Odyseus and one day she wrote in her Facebook status that they were looking for volunteers. Since I was a child, I panicked when I saw syringes and needles, I fainted from getting my blood taken. I couldn’t imagine working in this area, but curiosity was stronger than fear. Sex business is a very difficult topic, I think that it is the most difficult one that Odyseus deals with. Many people don’t understand the work, but I can see many opportunities. It was a challenge for me. ”
Do you remember the first field trip?
“Of course, but I did not start immediately. We have a rule – each newbie has to visit the community at least six times as an observer or maybe just serving tea, coffee or soup to clients. I remember how worried I was at the beginning. Even a tough training cannot prepare you for all situations that might happen in the field. But when I first saw friendly reactions of clients towards the Odysea team, all worries were gone.”
The civic association has been active for 17 years in closed communities. How did you manage to gain trust of the people?
“It has been a long journey. In the past, the civic association explored several ways. In Bratislava, drugs became widespread in the 1990s and nobody knew how to solve the issue.
Odyseus was established by a group of social work students eager to help people in need. They went to subways with cans for used syringes with a recycling badge and a syringe pin.
They read books and analyses from abroad on how to launch a syringe exchange program and they cooperated with experts from abroad. But in practice, the method was trial and error. We found out that personal recommendations of our clients are more efficient than our web site or social networks. We are active mainly in Bratislava, and this is one of the reasons why clients find out about us by means of personal relations rather than on the internet. ”
What are the first outcomes of the Red Umbrella program?
“Currently, we are completing a survey that should give us an idea of the actual situation in the field. We published a leaflet with contact details and advice for abused women working in sex business. We include our contact details, counselling and options of protection.
We know from experience that the police want to help women who are victims of violence, but they do not know who to call, which civic associations are dealing with abused women in the long run. A former police man has joined our team, he still has good reputation in the police force.
It is much better when a police man talks to a police man. He introduces us and that makes it easier to reach an agreement. We want to hear their views on the issue of violence in sex business, their suggestions, space for improvement. Communication with the police management has also improved and in autumn, we will have our first meetings. Viral campaign starring the entertainer Evelyn was also a hit.”
Were you worried about people’s reactions to a campaign defending rights of women in sex business?
“We wanted to make it controversial and provocative, but within the limits of ethics. It was a test that turned out well. The aim was not to convince people to approve sex business, but to start a discussion on violence. I think it is better to have a video with Evelyn that has been seen by fourteen thousand people who learn something about a problem which is not discussed in the public, rather than shooting a moving video with several hundreds of views by fans and acquaintances. Our aim was to address especially the young generation. We do not defend human trafficking. We are trying to destroy the myth that violence is just a natural component of sex business and it is occupational hazard. We wanted to show that violence against women must not be tolerated under any circumstances.
Author: Rudolf SIvý 13.10.2015