Sex Workers in the South Caucasus: “Is What We Do Amoral?”

Despite the traditional mentality of all three South Caucasian countries and a number of restraining cultural and religious factors, in the capitals of all three countries and in smaller towns one can always find a massage parlor, a sauna or a street offering intimate services.

Editor’s note: all name’s have been changed for purposes of anonymity


Despite the traditional mentality of all three South Caucasian countries and a number of restraining cultural and religious factors, in the capitals of all three countries and in smaller towns one can always find a massage parlor, a sauna or a street offering intimate services.

The rights of sex workers and their situation are rarely discussed. While everyone may know about them and their existence, few are keen on raising the topic.

A group of journalists from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan looked into this issue to find out more and answer questions such as: what forces women into sex work? What do they risk in doing so? How does society look at them? What rights do they have?

Eka, Georgia, 30 – years – old

One evening in one of the commuter suburbs of Tbilisi, 30 – year – old Eka puts on makeup, a brightly – colored coat, jeans and a nice pair of shoes. One might think she is going to a party, or on a date – but she is going to work. Eka has been a sex – worker for 7 years now, and offers her services in one of Tbilisi’s saunas.

“I grew up in a rather small village in the West of Georgia. When I was 17 years old, a boy from a neighboring town kidnapped me. They call it bride napping here. I remained with him, and bore him two children. My life was not easy…but then again, who has it easy right now?”, says Eka.

She remembers that they lived without much wealth, but “hey, we did get along, didn’t we?” She took care of the children while her husband worked. But there was an accident which overturned her life completely: her husband died in a car crash, leaving her alone with two small children and a slew of bills and debts.

“My parents are retired, so they were unable to help me. Nor were the parents of my late husband. I decided to move to Tbilisi – it’s the capital, isn’t it? – because it is easier to find work here. I left my kids with my parents and set out for Tbilisi. I worked as a maid, a saleswoman, but this wasn’t enough to provide for me and my 2 kids. It was so difficult, that I thought about killing myself a few times. One of my friends told me that she worked in a sauna, where she offers intimate services to men. I tried getting the thought out of my head…but then there just came a day when I finally decided…”

Photo: Mariam Nikuradze

Eka preferred not to speak about her first days as a sex worker. It is even hard for her to remember. She does, however, say that she was afraid all the time that one of her acquaintances would walk in.

“Of course, I wasn’t jumping for joy. But I knew that I wasn’t stealing, I wasn’t killing people nor doing anyone harm to anyone but myself. But, I was able to provide not only for myself but for my two children and there was even enough to send some to my parents.

And for this New Year’s, I was even able to bring home some presents…”

Eka knows firsthand that her job is a daily risk.

“I’ve been beating, hazed, humiliated. Thank god I’ve never ended up in the hospital, and I’ve never been taken to the police office after a raid. And thank god I can’t even remember all of it – I’d die if I still remembered all that has happened to me. It helps that I work in a sauna and not out on the street. Here, everyone can help you should you need it – but not on the street. Girls that work on the street have it much rougher and have been beaten numerous times. And who will you lodge a complaint with? The police think that since you’re a prostitute, they [strangers] can do whatever they want with you. They are always on the side of our clients – rapists and offenders.”

Nare, Armenia, 35 – year – old

Nare is from Armenia. She says that she ended up on this track because of her children.

“I didn’t start working in prostitution because of a high – quality life, you know. I got married, became a mother of two children – my husband died of an illness rather shortly thereafter. What am I supposed to do, how should I earn my keep? I have no higher education. And, by the way, even those that do have an education don’t find it necessarily very easy to find work.

I had a friend who gave me some advice. Now I work until 6 in the morning. Sometimes I earn a lot, sometimes I come home without a single kopek”, says 35 – year – old Nare Ayvazyan, who has been working as a sex worker for the past three years.

Nare does not believe that she is doing something amoral. She simply thinks that this is her job. She has her own principles and her own morals – she never gets attached to clients and never engages with more than one at the same time. She says the danger of prostitution in this region is high.

“You never really know who it is that you’re going with, and how he is going to act with you. But what can you do about that, this is a risk in our line of work. You have to be smart, quick and clever so that things don’t end up in the hands of the police, so that things don’t end in a scandal. Despite your knowledge of your rights, they will always take the side of the offender – client. And that’s because you’re a ‘fallen woman’, unworthy of compassion or justice. We don’t have rights in the eyes of society, nor in the eyes of the police”, says Nare.

Shalala, Azerbaijan, 60 – years – old

60 – year – old Shalala Abdullayeva is unashamed to speak of her profession. Shalala moved with her young husband and her son to Sumqayit (2nd largest city in Azerbaijan) from a smaller provincial town. Her husband found work. But the happy days of the family were numbered. A year later, her husband was arrested for the murder of his colleague and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Shalala had to feed her self and her son. And she had to provide for her husband in prison. The tall, young woman did not give up, but she did not want to find work. She found a different way out of the situation.

“I had no education. I thought to myself – ‘if I go work as a dish-washer or as a maid, I’ll get hit on [by my bosses]. If I don’t agree and give in to them, then they’ll fire me. I’ll just waste my time.’ I started going more often to the weddings of friends and relatives. I got all dressed up, put on my makeup, wore high – heeled shoes: I was shining with glamor. Someone would always get close to me at one point or another during these weddings and they’d give me their number. I’d call, I’d invite them to my home and I’d name a price.”

Shalala says that from the very first day she retained a cool head in regards to this line of work. She never cried, never suffered.

“I understood that this was a decent line of work. But as with all professions, one needs to be dispassionate and patient.”

Shalala always had her clients come to her own apartment. All her neighbors know what she does. From the first day when they began to protest and demand an explanation from her, they threatened her with physical violence. But she did not lose her cool, and instead laid bare the facts.

“Every month, I pay district ‘taxes.’ I will way the district boys to protect me as well. If someone opens their mouth or raises a fist against me, they will be arrested and found in possession of drugs. Or they’ll be beaten. If everyone remains quiet, however, I promise you will never hear a drunken voice from my apartment, scandals or anything of the sort. I will respect you, but you must respect me as well.”

Shalala further explained that she never risked anything. She was always safe and used protection and never called clients in order to avoid conflicts with their families. She never went to someone’s home or to a hotel.

“Only at home. I often don’t know who this person really is, what he will do to me, and whether there will be anyone around to protect me or not. And here at home – despite the neighbors – there are really very few risks.”

When her husband got out of prison and found out what she had been doing for the past 15 years, he forgave her and said he understood the necessity of her work. But Shalala refused to live with him. She did not want to lose her work.

“I got used to working and earning my own life expenses. I made my life myself. My neighbors already accepted me and no one says anything bad to me.”

They think they earn what they get

But not everyone has been so ‘lucky’ as Shalala. As a whole, sex workers have it very difficult in all three countries of the South Caucasus: constant police raids, beatings and hazings are common place.

Beka Gadabadze

Social worker from Tanadgoma (Geo. support), Beka Gadabadze, says that women in this dangerous field often think badly of themselves, and think that they are unworthy of even the defense of their most basic rights.

“Many of them feel like a marginalized group. They think that they deserve the negativity they get from others. They don’t even think for a moment that they have to defend their rights.”

They are often hazed and humiliated by their clients, both physically and verbally. They receive bad quality treatment from doctors, and they are sometimes even turned away. This is the spectrum of complaints we received from sex workers who agreed to talk to us.

What does the data say?

Prostitution is illegal in all three countries of the South Caucasus, which forces many to remain quiet when their rights are violated.

Association Gerra 21 in 2014 published findings in which 92 sex workers from around Georgia were interviewed. Only two of them had ever dared to file a complaint with the police in order to have their rights defended. One of their appeals was completely ignored.

The Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) began a new project in 2016, which is aimed at informing sex workers of their rights.

Tamar Dekanosidze

“We lead trainings not only for sex – workers but also for lawyers. We want to show that justice is not available for these people only because of their jobs. Sex – workers are often victims of rape, and the law – enforcement system turns them away. Sex – workers have little trust in lawyers nor in the police. Many of them are subject to violence at least twice a week…both by their clients, the police and sometimes even their relatives”, says lawyer Tamar Dekanosidze from the GYLA.

A fine for “selling the body”

The laws in the South Caucasus governing prostitution are similar in a number of ways. In all three countries, it is considered an administrative offense. In Georgia, the allocation of housing for prostitution is illegal and punishable according to Article 254 of the Criminal Codex of the country – it can be punished by a fine or by 2 – 4 years’ imprisonment.

Sex – workers themselves are punishable by Article 172/3 of the administrative codex of Georgia, for which they may be forced to pay fines of half their minimal monthly salary. The concrete sum of this minimum is not defined, and it is not possible to pinpoint the salary of a sex – worker

According to Tamar Dekanosidze, her organization appealed to the Ministry of Interior Affairs to ask for a quote of this possible fine.

“We were not given this information. But sex workers that I asked told me that they have to give about 20 lari”, says the lawyer.

In Armenia, prostitution is also punishable by fines. The exact amount of such fines is not defined by the Armenian legislation, but interviews with police lead to the conclusino that first – time violations are punishable by fines of up to 20,000 dram (41 dollars). Second time offenders are fined double.

The allocation of housing meant for prostitution is considered a criminal offense, and is punishable by fines or imprisonment according to Article 232 of the Criminal Codex of Armenia.

Article 132 of the CC (human trafficking with the intent of sexual exploitation) calls for fines of upwards of 275,000 drams (567 dollars), and can be punished with correctional labor and / or up to 4 years’ imprisonment.

In Azerbaijan, prostitution is also an administrative offense and is punishable by fines. Sex – workers can be persecuted according to article 526 of the Administrative Codex of Azerbaijan.

The fine is 100 manat (55 dollars). Moreover, according to article 244 of the Criminal Codex of Azerbaijan, “the organizing or maintenance of living quarters for the purpose of prostitution is punishable by either public works from 200 – 240 hours, correctional labor for up two years or up to three years’ imprisonment.”

They pay a fine and continue on…

Lawyer Tigran Sargsyan believes that fines do not work: the police gather up sex – workers, fine them and let them go. And the case ends there.

However, lawyer Fariz Namable says that fines and criminal prosecution do not affect the difficulty of the lives of sex – workers.

“Both sex – workers and sex – dens work quietly, under the table, so to speak. They pay fines and continue on working; no one looks after the health or defense of sex – workers. I’m not even talking about preventative measures…”, says the lawyer.

Clients decide whether or not to use a condom

Yet another sphere in which the rights of sex – workers are often violated is healthcare.

The governments of the three South Caucasian countries do not provide special services for the health of sex – workers. It is also not unheard of for doctors to completely deny their access to medical services. This is but one of many medical issues faced by sex – workers.

NGO “Tanadgoma” is one of the few organizations in the South Caucasus that works with this marginalized group. The organization provides medical services and information on reproductive and sexual health, including the use of lubricant and condoms.

Social workers from these organizations seek out sex – workers and hand out condoms and lubricants.

Gadabadze says that “they can come to our health corner to seek medical attention – we have a contract with several doctors. Sex – workers can do free HIV tests and other analyses. We have two gynecologists – they have received sensitivity training and they understand how to work with patients. Sex – workers can also come to our branches and receive condoms.”

Ohannes Ohannesyan

Head of medical center, “Dermatology and sexually transmitted infections” under the auspices of the Armenian Ministry of Health, Ohannes Ohannesyan notes that even if prostitution were to be legalized and if sex – workers were to receive special housing, infection rates of STIs would not decrease.

“If a sex – worker has an infection and has been provided with housing, then this would help us discover her infection and deal with it quicker. However, housing will not stop the infection of other clients or herself. The client generally plays a large role in deciding whether to use a condom or not. When a person is infected, the infection is not discovered on the next day. For example, HIV infection can take up to 6 months to detect. Can you imagine, in this window, how many people one can infect?! Maybe, if they were forced to undergo medical examinations on a regular basis, then maybe their health would improve – but the potential for infection would not decrease”, says Ohannesyan.

Is legalization a way out of the problem?

How can this problem be solved? Would the decriminalization or even legalization of prostitution become a solution for this problem in the South Caucasus?

Ohannes Ohannesyan is a supporter of sex – work legalization, and for the creation of institutions where intimate services can be legally offered. However, he doubts that this will come about in the region, because the legislative sphere is not ready for it.

Tamar Dekanosidze believes that it is not legalization but rather decriminalization that may serve as a solution to the problem.

“If prostitution is not decriminalized, sex workers will continue to be afraid of asking the police for help.”

The rights defender believes that the criminal persecution of renting living quarters for the purposes of prostitution is putting a brake on the process of gaining rights for sex workers.

“We are for the cancellation of all administrative and criminal offenses [in regards to prostitution]”, says the lawyer.

However, according to Fariz Namazli, neither the decriminalization nor the legalization of prostitution would leave to the resolution of the problem. He believes that the problem should be solved on the level of society.

“Even if prostitution were to become legal, people would hide, they would not go through obligatory medical observation. They will always be ashamed of their profession. However, if legalization takes place, one could solve the questions of tax payment and medical insurance.”

Do sex – workers themselves want their profession to be legalized?

Shalala says that she is uninterested in society’s opinion, nor in the rights and laws that the State could give her.

“I understood one thing about this country – whoever you are and whatever you do, you have to be able to defend yourself, and you have to be able to force people to respect you. I made my neighbors do just this – and that’s why I’m strong.

“When I see girls in this business that have bruises or are drunk and who vulgarly behave themselves, I feel pity for them. I never drank more than a glass, didn’t dress vulgarly, didn’t smoke and didn’t behave provokingly. We have different morals. People get angry, when you go against their traditions, their life style. But when you show your better side, then they accept you. Like my neighbors, my clients have always respected me. Besides payment, they have often gifted me gold, diamonds, fixed my apartment. There are some with whom I haven’t had sex in a long time, but they still come to me to solve some of my problems about the house and they give me presents.”

Is what we do amoral?

“When you explain to them, what decriminalization would be good for, or for that matter, legalization, then they answer thus: ‘Georgia isn’t such a country where this would be possible. And, actually, this isn’t needed – what we do isn’t all that great to begin with’ “, says Gadabadze.

Lawyer Tigran Sargsyan says that this field needs administration and better management, because many crimes happen as a result of this lack of oversight.

“If the State doesn’t regulate the process, then criminal gangs take prostitution into their own hands. Were there the appropriate legislation passed and if the industry were to be better regulated by a responsible person or system, then the situation might improve. And prostitutes would stand not on the streets but they would welcome their clients in specific institutions, and this would all happen in a bit more civilized of a way”, he says.

Garik Ayrapetyan

Representative of the Armenian United Nations Population Fund, Garik Ayrapetyan, notes that many countries have legalized prostitution. However, in the case of the South Caucasus, one should move forward carefully.

“In more developed countries, sex – workers go through mandatory medical observation, which attempts to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases. It is also hoped that after the legalization of prostitution, violence against sex – workers will decrease.”

Ana səhifəNewsSex Workers in the South Caucasus: “Is What We Do Amoral?”