KYIV - During a recent visit to Kyiv, Michel Kazatchkine — the U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia — toured the Ukrainian capital's various harm-reduction programs, aimed at stopping the spread of HIV. Among those was the nongovernmental organization Eney (Aeneas), which specializes in providing medical and legal assistance to female sex workers in Kyiv.
Eney was founded in 1999, when it began work with drug addicts. In 2008, it expanded its operation to address sex workers.
Vladimir Borisov, head of the harm reduction program, says the group works directly with sex workers in apartments, along highways, and on the internet, providing such services as free, anonymous testing for HIV, hepatitis C, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"We give seminars for sex workers to help them survive while protecting themselves and their families," Borisov said.
Ninety percent of sex workers in Kyiv and other major cities throughout Ukraine have access to condoms and contraceptives, according to Borisov.
Eney's Viktoria Belekanich uses the organization's mobile laboratory to check up on sex workers around the city.
From the outside, the mobile lab looks like an ordinary van. Inside, however, it features a doctor's office complete with an examination chair. The lab distributes condoms and other needed supplies, as well as offering a private space for sex workers to get quickly tested for HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.
It was still daylight on a busy residential street when a woman who asked to be called "Olga" met with journalists on the press tour. At 32, she is divorced and has been working in the sex industry for four years, ever since she needed money to pay for her father's medical operation. Clients find Olga via the internet.
Olga says she gets tested every three weeks.
"There is a stereotype that Ukrainian girls don't care about their health; it's not true," she said. "The girls are very careful about their health."
Olga isn't coy about her motives for staying in the business. "The money," she said, explaining that her average rate is $200 per hour. Half of her proceeds go toward her employers, a so-called "VIP service," and in an average month she can make around $4,000. If she feels threatened by a client, she has a panic button to call security.
In the mobile lab, Belekanich drives to meet "Margarita," a sex worker who uses an apartment close to the Ministry of Justice. Margarita is 40, and has been in the business for a year and a half.
"The tests are most important," Margarita said. "We get tested more often than is normally required."
Belekanich's last stop is in a suburb near one of Kyiv's biggest shopping centers, where she meets with "Katya," 36, who is divorced with a son.
Katya works nearly seven days a week, averaging about four hours a day. She says she faces no coercion or violence, and simply takes a day off if she feels tired or ill. Her tests in the mobile lab take 10 minutes.
Belekanich says Eney's clients tend to be shy, adding that many of the women have families or traditional jobs. Initially, Eney had a tall hurdle of trust to overcome, as many of the sex workers didn't believe that an organization would give away boxes of condoms for free.
On at least one occasion, Belekanich explained, Borisov found the only way to deliver to some sex workers was to pretend to be a client so they would open their doors. Now, however, sex workers reach out to the organization, and they spread word of it to their coworkers.
"We've earned a lot of trust as a closed organization," Borisov said, while speaking about the organization's commitment to confidentiality. "And if we give up even one name from our database, we would lose that trust."