Provocative Protests: Students Fight Prostitution in Ukraine

By André Eichhofer in Kiev

Experts say that there are 12,000 prostitutes in Ukraine, many of whom are students trying to make ends meet in difficult times. One group has found creative -- and sometimes abrasive -- ways to let foreign tourists know that "Ukraine is no whorehouse."

A group of young women in Kiev has woven itself into the crowds along Khreshchatyk, the city's main boulevard. They're wearing pink pantyhose, miniskirts and high heels. They carry placards saying: "Ukrainian girls are not for sale." Nastia, a recent high school graduate, says: "Today, we're going on patrol."

Ukraine has become a favored destination for sex tourism, particularly from Western countries. So the women are keeping an eye out for foreigners. Nastia spots a fashionably dressed man, who turns out to be a Danish tourist. She approaches him and starts talking to him, while she presses a flyer into his hand. "Ukraine is no whorehouse" is the title of the flyer, which also warns that Ukraine has Europe's highest incidence of HIV/AIDS. And it accuses those who frequent prostitutes of ultimately supporting the mafia.

Curing Foreigners' Sex Addiction

"We can recognize foreigners by their facial features and their clothes," Nastia explains. "And we're usually right." The young women address three Mediterranean-looking men. The three Italians claim that they are just on a business trip and have never had sex with prostitutes. "People's reactions to us are usually friendly," Nastia says. But sometimes they get a hail of catcalls.

Last year, the women founded an organization called Femen. Most of the group's members are university students, but there also some high school kids and even a few men. Their mission: to fight against sex tourism and prostitution -- and to do so with provocative activities. For example, the women once dressed up as nurses with backpacks full of syringes to protest in front of the Turkish Embassy. Anna Hutsol, one of Femen's founders and leaders, says that the action was "meant symbolically." "We wanted to cure foreigners' sex addiction," she says.

According to figures from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, there are approximately 12,000 prostitutes in the Ukraine. A recent poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) found that one in every eight of these prostitutes is a university or high school student. And, according to Hutsol, this figure is much higher when it comes to Kiev. "We estimate that 60 percent of the prostitutes in Kiev are university students," she says.

What's driving many students into prostitution are high unemployment rates, low incomes and costs of living similar to those in Western Europe. The average income in 2008 for someone living in Ukraine's capital was about €300 ($422), according to official statistics. The global economic crisis has led to a drop in salaries this year, and thousands have lost their jobs. And, at the same time, prices for food and clothing, for example, are just as high as they are in Germany. This year alone, inflation is expected to jump by 20 percent, and steep fees for attending university are yet another financial burden on students.

From Expat to Sexpat

According to Tania Kozak, a spokeswoman for Femen, two of the things feeding sex tourism to Ukraine are the country's depressed economic situation and relaxed entry requirements. Femen teamed up with the KIIS to conduct a survey of 1,200 female students. Of those who responded, 70 percent claimed to have been solicited by foreigners for paid sex -- whether in discos, bars or simply on the street.

One thing that many foreigners are unaware of is that fact that Article 302 of Ukraine's Penal Code outlaws prostitution. But that doesn't stop people from advertising thinly disguised paid sex, whether on so-called "escort service" Web sites or in nightclubs. Last November, a 21-year-old concierge at a luxury hotel in Kiev was arrested for setting up foreign guests with prostitutes for a $100 "fee." Foreigners who live and work in Kiev for foreign companies and frequent prostitutes already have a nickname: sexpats.

"Foreigners just don't realize that they are sometimes also risking their lives," Kozak warns. She's referring to the statistic that ranks her country as having the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Europe. According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), 1.6 percent of Ukraine's population is infected with the disease, as compared with approximately 0.1 percent of Germany's population. The WHO estimates that in Odessa alone roughly 150,000 people are infected with HIV/AIDS.

Throwing Pies at Macho Guys

Femen is using its campaign to sensitize people to these issues. They gather in Kiev's Independence Square, strip down to their underwear and stuff dollar bills in their bras. "If we were to run around dressed in baggy clothes," Hutsol reasons, "no one would pay any attention to us." On another occasion, some of the students belonging to Femen threw themselves into mud puddles on the street in order to protest against "the political mud-slinging in our country." In particular, they were voicing their displeasure with the long-lasting feud between President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which crippled the country and turned many off to politics. "We want to wake people back up," Hutsol says.

According to Nastia, Femen is not a feminist organization. "I like it when a man holds the door open for me," she says, "or takes me out to dinner." Alexandra, another member of the group, adds that: "There are still a lot of guys who act like chauvinists." Alexandra is currently studying financial management at the National University of Khmelnytskyy, a city of 250,000 in western Ukraine. In April, Alexandra caused a national commotion when she threw a cream pie in the face of the writer Oles Buzina at a book reading. Many women were irate at Buzina for his publication entitled "Ladies, Back to the Harems." One of his controversial positions holds that women belong to the herd and should be prepared to have sex at any time.

"After he got the pie in the face, he got violent and behaved like a hooligan, spraying the journalists who were present with mace in the eyes," Alexandra says. As she sees it, Buzina is incapable of understanding why his book could case such outrage. "It's sold over 10,000 copies," he counters on his blog. "Women have begged me to sign their copies." Alexandra only got a slap on the wrist for her actions. She had to pay a fine equal to about €8.50 ($12) at the police station, and that was that. "Even the police sympathized with what I did," she says.

Kozak describes Femen as politically independent. The group's members gather in a café not far from Independence Square to brainstorm on new campaigns, make placards and design new pamphlets. The group keeps its members' enthusiasm up via online social-networking sites, and it pays for its activities through member donations.

Performance with DJ Hell

Femen recently received a bit of unexpected support from Germany in the form of Helmut Geier, who also goes by the name of DJ Hell. "I found out about the group via a newspaper article about it," Geier explains. He paid his own way to fly to Ukraine and put on a performance with Femen members in downtown Kiev. Some members who are fashion designers came up with some fairly intricate costumes that bore pricetags. As DJ Hell blasted music out over the streets, the Femem members threw themselves in front of the feet of men. "It was meant to demonstrate how women are forced to debase themselves," he says.

Femen believes that sex tourism in Ukraine will continue to grow. One reason is the fact that Ukraine will co-host the European Championship football tournament with Poland in 2012. Figuring that not all the fans drawn by the tournament will only be interested in sports, Femen has drawn up a special plan of action. The group's members have prepared a tip for foreigners: "Don't frequent prostitutes. Instead, visit the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum dedicated to one of our country's greatest writers."

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