Sasha, 17, hides her face under the brim of her baseball cap as she recounts how a lack of food and clothing in her boarding school three years ago forced her to turn to prostitution. She is one of many young women from the former shipbuilding hub and now depressed southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv who at a young age felt forced to provide sex for money or services.
However, along with dozens of others, she now has a glimmer of hope and wants to get back to a normal life with the help of rehabilitation centers supported by UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“My mum was a single mother and went to Russia when I was two years old. She left and never came back,” said Sasha, who declined to give her surname.
Her grandmother was left to take care of her and her stepsister, but she could not handle the pressure, so social services took Sasha first to an orphanage and then to a boarding school when she was six. Sasha says that starting at the age of 14, she periodically ran away from the boarding school, a tough institution that houses orphans and problem children.
She and her friends would then be brought back by the police. The sense of utter destitution pushed her toward working on the streets.
“We needed the money. We wanted clothes, food and we were often malnourished. Others had nice clothes, but we had nothing to buy,” Sasha said.
The risks of such work are clear: The Mykolayiv region has one of the highest levels in the Ukraine of HIV-related fatalities among 15-to-24-year-olds.
Olena Sakovych, the adolescent development specialist at UNICEF’s Office in the Ukraine, said that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and practicing unsafe sexual behavior are more at risk of contracting diseases, including HIV.
“They have a lack of knowledge, lack of information, they are left alone with themselves and do not know what to do,” Sakovych said.
Sasha recalled how a volunteer from the UNICEF-backed Unitus center came to the boarding school to tell young sex workers about the chances of another life. It brought her to the center.
“I liked being here, the people here are so kind, they began to tell us what is possible, what is not, how to get out of any situation,” she said.
Unlike Sasha, other girls at the center are not so ready to say they were engaged in prostitution. Center workers say many are in a state of denial about whether they have ever been prostitutes.
“Girls do not call what they do prostitution,” said Natalia Babenko, the project coordinator at the Unitus center.
She said some girls merely recount how men bought lipstick for them, tights or just took them to the cinema in exchange for sex.
All of the girls are from problem families and have little idea about basic sexual health, the social worker said.
“By the age of 14 they have had half a dozen partners,” she said.
Babenko said that the main objectives of the project are prevention and access to services.
“We test for HIV, sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis. In parallel, we conduct classes often in a playful way, because you cannot heal the body if you do not cure the soul,” Babenko said.
According to Babenko, the girls are encouraged to bring friends and acquaintances to the center and can also learn how to explain their experiences to others.
“If every one of them brought at least five of their friends or acquaintances, it would be very good,” she said.
When the project started four years ago, only a few dozen people joined the program, but now it covers between 300 and 400 girls.
“Now I am a student in a cultural college, I live in a dormitory,” Sasha said, adding that in the future she wants to become either a musician or a film director.
She also has hopes now of a fulfilling, and safe, private life.
“I met a guy two-and-a-half years ago. Neither he nor I have any infections. So maybe we will get married in the future,” she said.
According to estimates by the UNICEF office in Ukraine, the number of underage girls involved in commercial sex in Ukraine is as high as 15,000.
The number of young prostitutes engaging in unprotected sex is still high, but falling sharply.
The Ukrainian Institute of Social Studies said that of those teenage girls engaged in prostitution, those having unprotected sex had decreased from 62 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2011.