In Georgia, prostitution is not only illegal, but is also a big taboo in this conservative society, strongly influenced by Orthodox Church values. The topic of prostitution, however, is much more complex and it is not only the social problem of “fallen women”, as some people may think.
Although prostitution is illegal, almost everyone knows the specific places and where to go if you are looking for these services. Arabic and Turkish discos near Rustaveli avenue or some Asian massage saloons in Tbilisi, as well as the streets of other cities, especially those on the Black Sea coast during the touristic season. Sex workers are usually (of course, not only in Georgia) perceived with disgust or pity. The idea of rights of sex-workers seems almost like science-fiction here in Georgia.
The biggest challenge about discussing prostitution, and the public’s opinion on it, lies in the sometimes blurred and thin boundaries among voluntary prostitution, human trafficking and teenage prostitution. These phenomena differ from each other and require different approaches and different solutions.
Prostitution as a choice
In some countries, sex workers who have decided to work voluntarily are lucky. They have a certain level of respect, their work is perceived without judging, they have their rights which are recognized by state and law and which brings them some protection in the case of violence from clients or rape. In some countries (e.g, in Germany) sex workers even pay taxes and social insurance and so they are secured in the retirement.
But Georgia is not this type of country. Although there is a big difference between the situation in which the sex worker has decided to choose this job voluntarily and the situation in which they have decided because of poverty, Georgian society simply does not count with the first one. Prostitution is perceived as something so immoral that it is unimaginable that someone would do it voluntarily.
From my point of view the reason why some decide to engage in sex work is very important. The situation, in which sex workers decided this job because of economical difficulties or lack of education, often borders with human trafficking and exploitation. Sex-workers forced into the work by economic situations often face conditions similar to those trafficked and exploited in other ways.
So, there should be some institutions and ways to help those people to improve their situation and remain outside of the circle of poverty. But if the sex worker has decided for this job voluntarily, then we should fully respect their opinion, as all of us should be free to choose our own way in the life. Then only what social workers should do; to offer information about safe sex or how to decrease the risk of violence from the clients. Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t make this distinction. As prostitution is illegal, it is perceived only as a social problem and sex workers as victims of their poor living situation, or of human trafficking.
The opinion that sex work may also be done voluntarily is not so common in Georgia, possibly down to the fact that the human trafficking remains a big issue. Georgia is a source, transit, and also destination country for women subjected to forced prostitution. Women and girls from Georgia are subjected to sex trafficking within the country, as well as in Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Women from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries are subjected to forced prostitution in Georgia’s commercial sex trade in the tourist areas such as Batumi and Gonio. Experts report that women are subjected to sex trafficking in saunas, strip clubs, casinos, and hotels.
Although Georgia have adopted a Law on Combating Trafficking in Persons and this problem is also mentioned in their Criminal Code, the effort of Georgian government remains low. There were only one conviction in 2010, none in 2012 and five in 2013/2014 and arrests of brothel owners seldom led to prosecutions, with brothels continuing to operate.
There are no exact statistics giving the number of victims of human trafficking (forced sex work) in Georgia. However, according to Nana Nazarova, the head of “People’s Harmonious Development Society,” there are up to 500 women employed in 27 informal brothels just in the town of Gonio, located in the Georgian region bordering Turkey. After their “employment”, they must pay their “employer” 7,500 US dollars.
Some hope for victims of human trafficking comes from two government-led and two NGO-led shelters, where the medical aid, psychological counseling and legal assistance is provided. But again, numbers remains low, as last year only fifteen victims of human trafficking were provided this help.
The existence of street kids is big problem in Georgia (as mentioned by Talvike Madla in her previous blog). World Vision, an international humanitarian organization estimates, that there are currently around 2.500 kids living in the streets of four biggest Georgian cities (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi). These children´s primary source of income is begging, sometimes forced to beg by families as the only breadwinners.
But when these children get older and lose their cuteness, begging is not so gainful for them. When considering poor education of these kids, it is obvious, that street boys often turn to crime and girls to prostitution.
There are not many easy ways to fight the phenomena of child-prostitution, because of variety of reasons. First, this topic remains a taboo for public discussion, government and police. Policemen do not react to cases of child prostitution because of lack of training or an unwillingness to intervene. Other reasons may be linked to the fact that many Georgians consider girls under the age of 18 as adults, as the age of sexual consent is 16. Many people doesn’t see the problem if the girl older than 16 is a sex worker. Also the fact that social workers doesn’t have much power to intervene, is a barrier in preventing child-prostitution. Social workers need the permission of the police, if they want to take a child away from abusive parents. But in most cases, police refuse to do anything, because of lack of evidence.
The next step
Although the theme of sex work and prostitution in Georgia is really wide and includes voluntary sex work, forced sex work as a form of human trafficking and also child-prostitution, one thing is common for all of these three phenomena is the fact that all of them remain big taboos in Georgia. Human trafficking and child-prostitution present serious human-rights violations and Georgian government have to improve the policy to tackle these social problems. In the terms of sex work, Georgian society should distinguish, if the sex worker have decided for this work voluntarily or not, as both reasons should led to different action. But all of this could not be done, if the government pretend, that these phenomena doesn’t exist.
Eva Michálková is volunteer and activist from the Czech Republic who recently graduated with a degree in International Social and Humanitarian Work. She is currently working as an international volunteer at the Women´s Information Centre in Tbilisi.