Arber Selmani explores the secret world of sex workers in Kosovo, and finds an industry unregulated at the cost of the country’s public health.
In the city where she does her job, the majority of people know each other. It’s one of those cities where a lot of things are going on, and the rhythm of everyday life never stops. Aferdita*, over 40, opens her café first thing in the morning and enjoys this part of the day with none of the clients who show up later on for the girls she’s hired. In case the morning doesn’t go well with tea, there is always the option of alcohol.
It’s been more than ten years now that she has had this café, although prostitution itself is not practiced here. Instead, men of different ages show up mostly in the evening, many of them ready to arrange a deal. In this café, Aferdita explains, there is only touching and the exchange of money.
“Cafés such as this one are very common in this city. Restaurants downstairs, motels upstairs. They come here to joke around, exchange small talk; everything is safe,” Aferdita explains.
She has been provoked by men of different ages. In a city where the number of sex workers is growing, men ranging in age from 15 to 50 wind up in the same group, and all share the same desire: to spend some time with a girl or a woman in exchange for a fee, which varies in accordance with the quality of the client and his preferences.
“Up until recently, the money was given subsequent to the sexual intercourse. Now, considering the girls’ complaints of not being paid, since they don’t have someone or some place to complain to – it being an illegal act – they meet somewhere, complete the payment, then later on meet up to carry out the act,” Aferdita says.
There are some streets in the city where places that serve as cafés by day magically transform into places where prostitution is practiced at night. Close to this, close to that, behind this: something happens here. This is how both sex workers themselves and average citizens talk in this particular city of Kosovo. Aferdita is afraid for herself and the others. As for the police, she has both good and bad things to say.
According to the Criminal Code, prostitution is illegal and punishable
However, Aferdita, like her friends who practice the same work, are in an unfavorable position under the Criminal Code of Kosovo. According to Article 149, forced prostitution is regarded as a crime against humanity, together with slavery, forced pregnancy, sterilization, and other acts.
“But this is not forced. A few years ago, a Serbian owner got arrested, and I know for a fact she was imprisoned for a few years as a result of forcing a girl [to sleep] with a client. When the story was revealed, they [went] nuts. She was a good woman, but perhaps she was a part of a bigger game. Here, more often than not, the act is carried out voluntarily”, Aferdita explains.
Kosovo’s Criminal Code criminalizes the act in question and outlines several other points, all forbidden by law. Many call it prostitution; others call it sex work.
Article 228 defines prostitution as “offering or providing sexual services in exchange for money, goods, or services, comprising but not limited to, payment by execution of an obligation, or by providing goods or services, being those sexual services, for free or on discount. Whether the payment, goods or services are given or promised to the person engaged in sexual services, or a third person, is of no importance.”
Additionally, Article 240 outlines the penalties for those practicing prostitution or for bar owners whose facilities are used for the purposes of arranging transactional sex work and where sex work is performed. Article 242 states that “anyone who knowingly provides their bar, being that as an owner of the premises, as a landlord, a tenant, a user or another person held responsible, for the purpose of prostitution or enabling prostitution as a third party, will be penalized with a fine and imprisonment of up to (3) years.”
Edona Tolaj, legal consultant in the Community Development Fund (CDF) / HIV Program, states that according to the Criminal Code, human trafficking and the facilitation of prostitution are considered to be criminal offenses, whereas prostitution by itself is considered a minor offense. Moreover, according to Tolaj, anyone with any information about such illegal activities must notify the authorities. This complicates matters significantly.
“This initially restricts access of this category [of the population] to services such as testing, treatment, and counselling on HIV/AIDS. Consequently, it adds to the danger of infection, not only among this category of workers, but for the population at large, since a substantial number of people receive sexual services from sex workers in Kosovo”, Tolaj says.
“Secondly, it restricts the activity of organizations offering free health services and HIV-related services, such as counselling, testing, treatment, dissemination of information, [and] distribution of condoms, which again leads to an increased risk of infection, not only among sex workers but the general population as well,” Tolaj adds.
There are 5,037 sex workers in Kosovo
According to the last survey conducted by the Global Fund’s HIV Program, the estimated number of sex workers in Kosovo is 5,037.
These sex workers are monitored by the “Strengthening HIV prevention in Kosovo” program, which is supported by the Global Fund.
“The HIV prevention among commercial sex workers and their clients is a separate component of the Global Fund program in Kosovo. The project is based on a vouchers system, offering commercial sex workers free gynecological services, as well as testing in four infections transmitted through sexual intercourse and blood: syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV. In cases of other suspected infections, free basic treatment is offered,” Edona Deva of CDF states.
Aferdita adds that the amount of money that sex workers are paid by their clients is modest.
“In the villages, the situation differs. The girls become sex workers due to lack of food and financial resources. Some sell their bodies for five or ten euros. The poverty in Kosovo has boosted the development of this trade even further”, Aferdita adds.
In her city, she says she has helped numerous women return to their homes after setting down the path of prostitution.
“Many were kicked out of their homes when their job was revealed. I have helped many return to their homes. One of the girls, I offered her money in order to stay home, and if she wanted to go for coffee, had her invite me to go with her. Until recently, she followed my advice. Now I am told she is out in the streets again,” Aferdita explains.
Trafficking and the underground
The Kosovo Police, specifically the Directorate for Investigation on Human Trafficking, acts in accordance with the legislation. Many cases of prostitution begin and develop as a result of human trafficking. One of the duties and authorizations outlined by the law on police is the prevention, investigation, and detection of offenses to aid in the fight against human trafficking.
Police records show that trafficking in Kosovo continues. In 2014, the total number of trafficked women in Kosovo was 37, while that number was 28 last year. In 2014, five males were trafficked, while in 2015, only two males were trafficked.
“It’s hard to believe that trafficked women would offer such services voluntarily. More likely, they are forced to practice this profession. According to police records, we deal with women being trafficked from within the territory of Kosovo or from Albania. In most cases, young girls are recruited to do regular jobs such as waitressing or dancing and later provide sexual services for which they are paid,”, Deva from CDF explains.
Nevertheless, she points out that trafficking and commercial sex work are two different concepts and should not be understood as the same thing. In short, not all sex workers should be thought of as victims of trafficking, and, in truth, there are many sex workers who are not victims of trafficking.
According to Deva, “even though we are dealing with a targeted population which is legally penalized and criminalized, public health work does not take into account differences of any kind based on the universal principle: health for everyone, as well as the right to accessible health services”.
Therefore, in order to protect the health of the general population and to ensure free access to health services for all, methods for the prevention of infections are provided, which is sometimes considered a matter of national security. The denial of such services only promotes the spread of infections. This, according to Deva, is one reason to initiate a public debate on changing the legislation, thus making this activity legal and more easily regulated. As a result, the state would benefit in a number of ways.
According to Kosovo Police records, in January of this year, a total of five victims of trafficking were identified within Kosovo’s territory, all women. Last year, a total of 30 trafficking victims were identified, among them only two males. In 2014, 42 victims of trafficking were identified, including one woman from Romania and one woman from Serbia.
KOPF, within the framework of the Global Fund and apart from commercial sex workers, also works on potential clients’ awareness through information, education and communication programs, along with the distribution of condoms.
“Certainly, [no one] admits to having using such services; however, the potential clients and informants in our case are taxi drivers and long-haul truck drivers, who are also our first-hand approach to prevention, intervening with condoms, and preventing the spread of illness or infection,” Rifat Batusha from KOPF says.
Sex workers should not be criminalized
It took Turkey many years to legalize prostitution. The 2004 census counted more than 100,000 sex workers across the country. Macedonia and Serbia have kept prostitution illegal and punishable with up to 10 years of imprisonment. Belgium, on the other hand, has decriminalized prostitution, while brothels are still illegal.
Batusha claims that reviewing laws and looking at the possibility of decriminalizing sex work would be beneficial to public health.
“Legislation regarding the community is very strict; they are highly degraded and stigmatized in Kosovo. If legislation was improved, it would be easier to know where this type of activity is practiced, and to maintain the health of women in that community,” Batusha adds.
KOPF also assists with the distribution of prevention packages to help guard against infection and reproductive health packages to reduce the chances of pregnancy. Batusha states that while there has been discussion and debate on changing the laws, Kosovo’s institutions are not ready yet.
In the meantime, Aferdita continues working in this business. In a way, she is an activist. Even for her, life would be easier if the state were to see the women who do sex work from a different perspective.
“It would be easier for everyone because the places where this type of thing takes place would be known. Now, I still stop by the girls in the street, give them health tips and coupons for free health services. If the law was to change, these people’s lives would also change,”Aferdita states.
All Aferdita wants is a solution that means no one gets an infection or becomes ill. In the city where she goes to sleep and wakes up every morning, daily life is grinding. She says that oppressing and isolating women involved in sex work causes serious suffering to Kosovo’s society .
*The city and some of the above interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their confidentiality due to the sensitivity of the topic discussed.
Cover photo credit: Mat Sloughter/flickr/some rights reserved
This article was made possible by INTEGRA and funded by the Global Fund HIV grant in Kosovo