FEMEN sheds light on Ukrainian sex industry [Interview: Anna Hutsol]
Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, has become notorious as a sex tourism mecca in Europe. Many young women from rural areas in Ukraine migrate to Kiev to find a better life. But, because of the economic hardship and the difficulty of getting a job, many of them support themselves by prostituting themselves. In fact, these type of women make up 90% of the prostitutes in Kiev.
Prostitutes enjoy no form of civil law protection in Ukraine. The police still treat prostitutes violently, intimidating and blackmailing them. Sex workers remain extremely stigmatised and excluded from society, and with the upcoming UEFA Euro 2012 jointly-hosted by Ukraine, which is producing both positive reporting on a major football event, but also negative negative headlines linked to an anticipated rise in prostitution and sex tourism, this problem needs to be addressed by politicians, law enforcement authorities, and society alike.
This is the main reason why the woman's activist group, FEMEN, was formed: to address this issue, to bring it to the conscience of society, and to fight it while changing people's perception. But more importantly, FEMEN want to empower women to break free of society's gender chains.
New Europe caught up with founder of FEMEN, Anna Hutsol, to see how they are going about achieving this.
NE:How did you first establish FEMEN and what are your objectives and missions?
AH:Officially founded on 10 April 2008, we decided to organise a women's organisation, under the name FEMEN, which originally was a "girls party". Honestly, we did not really imagine exactly what we would do in practice, and thus, our first real action took place only on 1 June of the same year. It started as a company of friends and friends of friends. Alas, we grew and became "friends-in-arms", everybody coming together from different backgrounds, interests and styles, and a lot of us would probably never have known each other if it wasn't for FEMEN.
The situation in Ukraine itself drew, and still draws, our attention to the problems women face, which gives rise to a strong desire for us to achieve real change by means of creating a civil organisation - a female organisation. This is how I came to the idea of founding a women's organisation that would protect our basic rights as women – this is the essence of FEMEN.
Initially, our objectives were simply limited to the protection of women’s' rights, but later we realised that being free is impossible in a country where there is an overall lack of freedoms, no right to assemble to protest, and where censorship exists.
Ukraine is a country now entering into more alliances, for example with Russia. However, the way of life and women's destiny is completely different from that of a European country's way of understanding it. We thus realised the most important thing: the problem of women's rights reaches far beyond its narrow interpretation and it should be solved on all levels - economic, political, international.
What is the symbolic nature of your signature of going topless while protesting?
We can of course find a lot of symbolism. Even going back to ancient times – such as the Amazonians – where the sacred attitude towards the woman's breast, fed, and still feeds, every human being. But for us, it also has a different meaning: for us a naked woman is a free woman.
A naked woman is uncontrolled by the patriarchate, and her unexpected appearance especially makes the patriarchy - the ruling man - nervous. It is different from the controlled appearance of a naked woman, let's say, on TV, a movie, or advertisment, etc., which is accepted and liked. We understood that in the beginning, it would be interesting for society and the media alike, and draw their attention.
However, later, when we were in constant conflicts with the authorities and militia, which are the most fierce representatives of the patriarchy, we concluded that this method was chosen very well, and we continued to use it. It turned out there is nothing more terrifying in such a patriarchal country than a protesting naked woman on your territory during some very important events.
The sex trade in Ukraine is a big business. However, more so now, girls are entering this trade from desperation rather than fear. From what is this trend attributed to and what do you think is the key to avert this from occurring?
First of all , the desperation you referred to is one of an economic nature. A good example of this was when a woman, who became a porno actress in order to feed her family due to the dire situation she was facing, was deprived of her maternity rights by the authorities. We stepped in to prevent this from occurring. Unfortunately, becoming a prostitute is still considered as a viable option for a Ukrainian woman.
On the other hand, the overall corruption from the very bottom up to the top of the hierarchy makes it a big business. It is not a secret that the main souteneur is the police and respectively the corresponding department of the Ministry of Interior. It is tragic and everybody knows about it. One way or the other, parliament representatives are also involved, for example, some own the hotels where these activities are knowingly taking place. This is a big business and the highest officials cannot turn a blind eye. That is why it is extremely difficult to fight this problem.
There are different ways to solve the problem. One method used by some countries is by legislation. There is an other way, mostly used by the northern European countries like Sweden, which seems more acceptable to me: the criminalisation of the person who engages the services of a prostitute. The person using the service shall be the "guilty" party as his demand generates the supply. By punishing the “client”, these countries started to educate their society that buying another human being is illegal, immoral and lacks dignity. I think this is the most important merit brought by this law in those countries.
We would recommend such a practice for Ukraine, and also all other countries, in order to get rid of this negative phenomenon coming from times of slavery. Somehow humanity wants to regulate its members willing to steal or kill, but not when it comes to buying another human being for sexual services, exploiting their poverty and “secondary status” as a person.
How deep does the sex industry go in Ukrainian society (e.g. politicians, government officials, law enforcement, etc)?
I mentioned this earlier, but it is one of the problems we face. For us it is very important that Ukrainian society, thanks to our movement, opened a discussion about prostitution, and people started to question themselves why it happens. Sex tourism was hidden and nobody spoke about it. At least now everybody speaks about it and young girls are aware of the dangers.
Also of great importance for us is the opinion of foreign visitors about our country and our women. When we organised FEMEN patrols on Kreschatik, Kiev's main street, many of them had no idea about the fact that prostitution is illegal in Ukraine. Such a revelation was shocking for many of them, and was convincing enough to avert them from using sex services in the future.
A determined political will to stop “sheltering” wrongdoers for such activities would be very important to the movement. We have teamed up with television to conduct investigations and to ultimately make the souteneurs unveil their patrons, which were then revealed to the public. With our investigation, we unveiled that they were protected by the police, and the money which bought protection was being delivered to the government department investigating human trade. Despite the videos, which were distributed by us to media outlets and shown on TV, there was no reaction from the authorities and nobody resigned in the ministry. Just from this case, we can see that the law enforcement organisation should be completely reformed to provide its law abiding citizens the protection of the law instead of giving this power to criminals involved in the sex trade.
This summer, the UEFA Euro Cup will jointly be held in Ukraine. There will be a spike in sports tourists and likely an increased demand for sexual services. What do you think is the best way to stop people from seeing the Euro as an opportunity to engage the services of sex workers?
Unfortunately, any sport event relying on great numbers of fans generates growth and migration of prostitution. In Germany, for example, prostitution is legal and the government accomodates the influx of tourists for big sporting competitions. Likewise, in Hungary, prostitution is legal and during the Formula 1 race, services for sex workers increase . There is a clear understanding that great numbers of fans should be entertained somehow, not only with sport but also with women.
Even in Ukraine, some propose to legalise prostitution for the UEFA Euro cup. Taking this into account, FEMEN submitted a proposal for UEFA to set up an awareness program, “Don't Buy Women!” This was completely ignored by them, which allows me to come to the conclusion that sport committees and federations have tight relationships with the sex industry, just like they do with beer companies, making money not only from sport, but also from sex and alcohol as a by-product of entertainment.
This is why we cannot expect improvement of the situation from their side. The only thing that we can do is to inform the sport fans that prostitution is illegal, and that the AIDS virus among prostitutes is between 17-20% (and this is only a documented number).
Also, attention should be drawn to the fact that this is a criminal industry, contributing to murders and other criminal acts. This is what concerns the sport tourists . But let's look from the point of view of our women: it is not only prostitution but sex tourism.
I don't know what type of people will come or how they see our country, but if they think it is a 'brothel country', how will they behave with young women on the streets? You know, our girls dress quite liberally, which is usually not accepted in a European country, and to some could seem as a sexual call . This will also influence the behaviour of the sport fans. Thus, we need drive home the message: “Yes, Ukrainian girls usually dress like this, but they are not prostitutes.”
We are already 2 years on from the establishment of the "Euro 2012 without prostitution" campaign, and we already have seen some positive results in changing the image of Ukraine and of our women. A funny story illustrating this was when some Turkish fans wrote to us before a match between Turkey and Ukraine, saying: "Let us come to Ukraine. Honestly, we are coming for the football only and not for sex tourism. We have read that you arrest sex tourists if not kill them there."
We don't know precisely how the Turkish press have portrayed our activities, but we are glad that attitudes are changing towards Ukraine, especially towards our women, and that people are aware that somebody is willing and can protect them.
I think we are going in the right direction concerning the campaign against prostitution and sex tourism for the Euro 2012.
FEMEN has openly campaigned against the legalisation of prostitution and sex tourism, even though the Ministry of Health is in favour of this. Some have said that you are not a serious dialogue partner in relation to these issues. How do you respond to this?
I don't know who could say that: from the very beginning we were lobbying this law (introducing the “responsibility on the buyers of sex services” notion). We explained our view on this subject, introduced a draft law that makes changes to the Ukrainian criminal code, and was submitted to the Supreme Council (the Parliament) by a representative from party "Our Ukraine" .
It was not easy protesting in front of the parliament in December when the temperature reahed 15 below zero. Nevertheless, we were distributing leaflets among the representatives, using the slogan: "Vote for this and get a kiss!".
We did what we could to achieve adoption of the law in the parliament, but unfortunately, we had to see that all these actions were fruitless, as the draft did not even go through the legislative committee. Even the initiating representative himself stopped caring about it. At this time, governmental power changed and he was actually trying to save his own skin, joining another political party. So we came to understand that this way does not work in our country. Only radical measures, protesting actions, shocking events on this subject can make society change its opinion, and to allow popular opinion press the parliament to vote for the law.
So, I have no idea who can state that we are not a serious partner, if there were forces really interested in this law, we would join them with great pleasure and do everything to achieve that this law is passed into legislation.
Does FEMEN do anything else than protesting to help sexual workers or to prevent them from engaging this line of work, e.g. social programs?
First of all, we take young women to our movement and bring them up to become free women, free-thinking women, able to protect themselves and others, and paying special attention to the problem of others.
As for workers of sex industry, we are not a rehabilitation centre and we are lacking special knowledge and resources. When they come to us, we redirect them to specialised organisations that can give them qualified psychological support and professional advice in finding alternate paths for turning around their life.