“Behind the polite facade of a smartly dressed client there can be a monster,” says a Moldovan sex worker. She knows what she’s talking about because her workplace is on a street in northern Moldova. Here we met her and her two colleagues. They told us how dangerous their job is: “They hanged Mariana and drowned Natascha. I can’t remember exactly how Iulia died,” they report. “They beat Tanea to death and her body was found by the side of the country road. The body of another sex worker was thrown down a sewer. When it was found, the woman’s identity could only be determined from her clothing.”
In the Republic of Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a population of less than three million people, there are around 15,800 sex workers, almost a third of them in the capital Chisinau. No figures are available for male sex workers. A recent survey in the former Soviet republic shows how severely these women are discriminated against: 88 percent of those surveyed said they would not even want to be near a person who works in the field of sex work. Prostitution is illegal in the Republic of Moldova, everything happens in secret and the women cannot hope for any protection from the authorities. If it becomes known how they earn their money, they have to pay fines of the equivalent of 88 to 118 euros.
The sex workers we spoke to talk about fear and humiliation: they were often chased at night by police officers with flashlights and had to hide in the bushes. They are often humiliated, beaten and abused by customers. Most of these women say they turned to sex work out of desperation and poverty as the only way to support their families and survive.
Ukrainian sex workers have their own location
The “Calea Basarabiei” in the capital Chisinau crosses an industrial area. The five-kilometre street is notorious for having sex workers waiting on both sides for potential clients. The different groups have divided up the area. Young newcomers are even chased away at first, says a sex worker who has been in the job for more than 20 years: “We’re old, already 36 or even 46, and the men who come here for sex would always prefer the younger ones, so chase them away we the young women.” She says that since the beginning of the war in the neighboring country, several groups of Ukrainian women have also appeared on the streets of Chisinau, but their work is organized by pimps. “And they only work at night, always in a fixed place.”
Other Moldovan sex workers also say that this industry in the Republic of Moldova is no longer usually organized by pimps, but that the women work independently and negotiate prices directly with the customer. While luxury escorts also earn several hundred euros a night, the women who wait for customers on the street earn the equivalent of between ten and 25 euros per customer. The smaller the place, the lower the prices: In a small town with 30,000 inhabitants, these are only around five euros.
It’s particularly difficult in small towns – and not just because of the very low prices, says a sex worker in her early 40s: “Everyone has a negative opinion of women like me and treat us badly. I’ve also been arrested and had to pay a fine that Police know about my activities.” It is particularly difficult for her children: “At school or in the inner courtyard between the prefabricated buildings, when they are playing, they are teased because their mother is a prostitute.”
She chose this job because she had no other way of earning money: “Many think prostitution is one of the easiest ways to make money. Anyone who says something like that has no idea how difficult it is for a woman is who has sold her body to regain her physical and mental balance.” What they need is a chance to earn their money in a different way. “Everyone treats us with disrespect, they see us as something dirty and disgusting. Sometimes we are treated even worse than criminals who kill other people.”
In addition to the women who wait for customers on the street, there are also the so-called “apartment girls” who offer their services in their own apartments or in that of the customer. They are often students or married women whose environment does not know that they work in this industry.
This group includes Diana, who has an unemployed husband and two young children. Although she has a steady job and regularly works paid overtime, the salary of around 172 euros per month is not enough for a family of four. That’s why she got into sex work: “I would do anything so that my children wouldn’t go hungry. I lead two parallel lives, nobody knows about my second job. I’m still very present in my children’s lives, I’m a good mother. “
Olga was raped at 12 – by her teacher’s husband
The five so-called “apartment girls” we spoke to are all married and have children. They don’t want those around them to find out about their “parallel life” as a sex worker and are very afraid of the day when that could happen. But none of them want to give up the stable income from sex work.
According to a study by the non-governmental organization Act for Involvement, around half of the sex workers in the Moldovan capital Chisinau were victims of sexual violence in childhood or early adolescence. Olga, who has been a sex worker for 26 years, says she was raped when she was 12 by her teacher’s husband. But she remained silent because the perpetrator threatened to kill her if she spoke about it. “I didn’t say anything because I was too scared. And that’s how I got into sleeping with men for money.”
Sick, poor, desperate
2.7 percent of these women are infected with HIV, according to a UN report on Moldova’s development. A former luxury escort tells us that her clients have included high Moldovan dignitaries, successful businessmen, mayors, politicians. She does not know which of them infected her with HIV. Because of her infection, she lost her customers and her only source of income. Out of poverty and desperation, she began trading sex services for food. She later became an alcoholic and once even ended up in the hospital, in an alcohol coma. Her biggest regret is dropping out of medical school when she was offered the opportunity to be a sex worker.
Most of the women who work in this field in the Republic of Moldova have no school qualifications, come from poor backgrounds and find it very difficult to find other jobs.
Some of the women say they pay the fines for prostitution, others can avoid them: for example Larisa, who has been a sex worker for 26 years. She comes from the separatist region of Transnistria, which split from Moldova in 1992 with Russian support. Because she does not have a Moldovan identity card, she does not have to pay any fines. With the money she earns as a sex worker in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, she was able to buy her son a condominium for his 17th birthday. She is currently renovating her house in Transnistria, and between meetings with customers she is constantly on the phone with the construction workers who are installing their new heating system. She is 47 and wants to “retire” in three years.
While Larisa, as a Transnistrian woman, does not have to pay the fines for prostitution, these are a problem for Iraida: she has had to pay fines more than 200 times. When she spoke to us while waiting for customers on the street, she was eight months pregnant. Two more children are waiting for her at home, and her husband is in prison for drug trafficking: “He will be behind bars between seven and 15 years, so I have to take care of the children alone.”
Many of the sex workers who spoke to us from different cities in Moldova are shocked that there are more and more minors on the streets. And this despite the fact that sex with minors in the Republic of Moldova is punishable by imprisonment. “The youngest girls are only twelve,” says a sex worker from a small town in the center of the country. “The police know that, the social workers probably know that too, but nobody is doing anything to save them.” And then she adds thoughtfully: “I think that men should also have some basic moral principles…”
This text is the result of long-term research by a team of journalists in the Republic of Moldova, including DW correspondent Violeta Colesnic from Chisinau. The journalists spoke to more than 40 sex workers from different cities in the former Soviet republic about their lives.
Adaptation from Romanian: Dana Alexandra Scherle