Gulnara Kurmanova sent me this text, which I have edited minimally for clarity. It takes you through the series of obstacles and contradictions that migrants who are sex workers may face, and not only in Central Asia.
Documented by: Gulnara Kurmanova, Tais Plus NGO, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
With kind assistance from: Selbi Jumayeva
Presented at: 24th Program Coordinating Board (UNAIDS) Meeting, Thematic Segment People on the Move, June 2009
About me: My name is Gulnara Kurmanova. I have worked in HIV programs in partnership with sex workers in Kyrgyz Republic, Central Asia, since 1997. We actively support sex workers’ empowerment and self-organization. I would like to present a story documented by me in my own country.
About my country: My country is very poor. Recently it became the poorest country in Central Asia which is the poorest region of the post-soviet world. My country is corrupt. Many people in my country have no stable source of income and must think every day about food and a roof. The majority of those who think about them are young women and men who have no education or needed skills but have families who need their support.
About people who sell sex. For these women and men, sex work becomes an income-generating activity and way of surviving. Many of them seek an opportunity to sell sex to earn a lot of money (in their dreams) and at least some money for bread for their children and a place to sleep (in their reality). Many sex workers I know personally are braver and more enterprising (in order to become financially independent, self-sufficient and to survive) than their peers who are housewives and suffer their husbands and mothers-in-law in villages. But women, men and transgendered people who sell sex are often poorer, not well educated and deprived of family support. Their first motivation for sex work is to earn money. Sex work is work; this is an income-generating activity. But to earn money they must leave their town or village.
Case of Venera, a 31-year-old transgender woman who is a sex worker. Five years ago she came to Bishkek from a small village in the north of the country. Her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. She lost her father because of tuberculosis when she was still a kid. She had changed schools and been placed in an orphanage in the village near the bigger town of Talass. Venera didn’t receive her secondary school diploma; like many others, she is embarrassed to say she is barely literate. She has no chance to get a good job in a nice place. At the same time she has dignity; Venera wants to be the woman she sees herself to be. Unfortunately, street sex work is the only space where she can come close to being herself. She is ok with earning money by selling sex. As a sex worker, she cannot work in her village because neighbors know her and judge her. She cannot work in Talass because she cannot wear women’s clothes there, a city with old Muslim traditions. Venera came to the capital city, Bishkek, to do sex work.
Currently Venera lives and works in Bishkek. She has problems with the police often, once or even two times a month and recently every week. The police arrest and detain her ‘because she has no passport.’ She prefers to say that she lost her passport, because her passport is a man’s passport, and her appearance is a woman’s appearance. For these reasons, she is currently an undocumented migrant. The police tell her that she is arrested for doing sex work and that she is not a human being anymore since she is a prostitute. She cannot argue that sex work is itself decriminalized in Kyrgyz Republic, because she is nobody to the police: she has no passport. The police ask her about money. They use her vulnerability to extort as much money as they can. She feeds the police, not herself, because they extort almost all the money she earns. Maybe the passport and resident permit could make her life better, but it is too expensive to pay for trip to Talass where she originally got her passport, and it would take months to collect all the necessary documents.
Her clients and street hooligans beat Venera often because of her feminine appearance. They think that she is not a human being anymore if she neglects ‘men’s honor’. Last October she faced a life-threatening situation when young men dragged her to their fancy black Mercedes without plates and took her to the outskirts of the city. They beat her severely, her face, her chest, her genitals; they raped her, burned her eyelashes, nipples and genitalia and threatened her with a gun. They said they would kill her if she told anyone. She wanted to file a report with the police, but they insulted her for being transgender and for sodomy and did not accept her complaint. Now she trusts the police even less.
Venera learned about a health problem three years ago but didn’t believe those who tested her. She didn’t receive proper pre-testing counseling. A doctor just told her that she should be tested when her friend convinced her to visit a clinic to ensure that she had no STIs. The doctor didn’t speak Kyrgyz, and Venera doesn’t speak Russian well. She didn’t understand a lot of what he said. Venera doesn’t discuss her health status with her friends. She does not trust medical services that treat her behavior, not her needs. In order to identify whether she needs treatment or not, she has to visit a doctor. She doesn’t visit a doctor because she doesn’t believe in any governmental institutions and tries to avoid contact with them. She knows from her experience that there is no confidentiality in governmental clinics and her secret could be revealed. She is afraid they might inform the police about her health status. She thinks that in this case she will be not able to work any more and lose her only source of income. She knows that other sex workers prefer to move to another city to be tested there. She is going to do the same later when she earns enough money. But if it is revealed that she needs expensive treatment, how will she pay for it?
Tais Plus works in collaboration with Labrys, a local LGBT NGO. Contact: taisplus at gmail.com.