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Moldova: Driven to sex work by desperation and poverty

Violeta Colesnic Chisinau
January 20, 2023

Many sex workers in Moldova turn to prostitution for money, enduring violence and humiliation in order to feed their families. But as prostitution is illegal in Moldova, they get no protection from police.

A woman stands on a dark street  as cars approach
A sex worker in Moldova waits at the roadside for clientsImage: Violeta Colesnic

"Behind the polite facade of a well-dressed client can be a monster," said one Moldovan sex worker. She knows what she's talking about; she works on a street in northern Moldova, where DW met her and two of her colleagues.

The women described how dangerous the work is: "They hanged Mariana and drowned Natasha. I can't remember exactly how Iulia died," said one. "They beat Tanea to death. Her body was found at the side of a country road. The body of another sex worker was dumped in a canal. When it was found, she could only be identified by her clothes."             

The Republic of Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has a population of less than three million. About one-third of the country's 15,800 female sex workers ply their trade in the capital, Chisinau. There are no statistics for male sex workers.

Map showing the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria

Prostitution is illegal in Moldova, so the women cannot rely on any kind of government protection. On the contrary, if the authorities find out how they earn their money, the women are fined between €88 and €118 ($95–128).

Fear, violence and humiliation

The sex workers spoke to DW of fear and humiliation, saying they are often chased by police officers at night. The "Johns" who pay for their services often degrade, beat and abuse them. Most of these women say they went into sex work out of desperation, because it was the only way they could feed their families and survive.  

The "Calea Basarabiei," in Moldova's capital Chisinau, passes through an industrial park. Over a stretch of 5 kilometers (3 miles), female sex workers wait on both sides of the road for potential clients. The women have divided up the road among the different groups working there.

New arrivals are not always welcome: "We are old, 36 or even 46, and the men who come here for sex would always choose the younger ones, so we chase the young women away," said one woman who has been a sex worker for over 20 years.

In Moldova, sex can be had for as little as €5

She said that since the start of the war in Ukraine, several groups of Ukrainian women have appeared on the streets of Chisinau, but that they have pimps. "And they only work nights; always in the same place."

Others confirmed that sex work in Moldova today is not usually organized by pimps, instead women work independently and negotiate prices directly with clients.

A sex worker speaks to the occupant of a car through an open window at the side of a road
Many sex workers would welcome the chance to earn a different living Image: Violeta Colesnic

While luxury escorts earn several hundred euros a night, women who work on the streets get between €10 and €25 per client. The smaller the town, the lower the rates: In a town with 30,000 inhabitants, rates can drop to as low as €5.

Discrimination and disrespect

One sex worker in her early 40s said that it is particularly tough in small towns — and not just because of the low prices: "Everyone has a negative opinion of women like me and treat us badly. I've been arrested and had to pay fines. The police know what I do." She went on to say that it's particularly hard on her children: "At school, in the yard between the prefabs, or when playing, they are taunted because their mother is a prostitute."

A recent survey conducted in Moldova illustrates the level of discrimination faced by these women: 88% of those surveyed said they would not even want to be near a person who engages in sex work.

These women engage in this work simply because they have no other choice, no other way to earn a living: "Many people think prostitution is one of the easiest ways to get money," she said. "Whoever says that has no idea how hard it is for a woman who sells her body to regain her physical and mental equilibrium."

What she needs, one woman said, is a chance to earn a living in a different way. "Everyone treats us disrespectfully, they see us as something dirty and disgusting. Sometimes we are treated even worse than criminals who kill other people."

Leading a double life

In addition to the women who walk the streets, there are the so-called "apartment girls" who offer their services in their own home or the client's home. Many are students or married women who don't want the people close to them to know they work in the sex trade and are terrified it will come out. Nevertheless, none of them wants to give up the stable income it brings.

Moldova fears a winter without Russian gas

Diana is one of them. She has two children, and her husband is unemployed. She has a secure job and often works paid overtime but the €172 she takes home at the end of the month is simply not enough for a family of four.

That is why she turned to sex work: "I would do anything to stop my children going hungry," she says. "I lead a double life, no-one knows about the second one. I am still very present in my children's lives, I am a good mother."

Many sex workers experienced sexual violence in their youth

According to a study by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Act for Involvement, about half of all female sex workers in Chisinau were victims of sexual violence in their childhood or early youth. Olga, who has been a sex worker for 26 years, said she was raped by her teacher's husband at the age of 12. She says she kept her mouth shut because the rapist threatened to kill her if she told anyone. "I said nothing because I was too scared. That's how I came to sleep with men for money ..."

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 2.7% of female sex workers in the country are infected with HIV. A former luxury escort said that Moldovan dignitaries, successful businessmen, mayors and politicians had all paid for her services. She doesn't know which one of them infected her with HIV.

Stock photo of a sex worker in Victoria, London
Although some sex workers are terrified people will find out what they do, they don't want to give up the stable income their work providesImage: picture-alliance/empics/Y. Mok

She lost her clients and her only source of income when she became infected. Out of desperation and poverty, she began to exchange sexual services for food. She later became an alcoholic and once ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Her biggest regret is that she dropped out of medical school when the offer to do sex work came along.

Fines for prostitution

Some women pay fines for prostitution. Others, like Larisa, who has been a sex worker for 26 years, can avoid them. Larisa comes from the region of Transnistria, which broke away from Moldova in 1992 with the support of Russia. Since she doesn't hold a Moldovan passport, she doesn't have to pay such fines.

For Iraida, on the other hand, the fines are a real problem: She has already paid over 200 of them. Although she is eight months pregnant, she is still working. Iraida already has two children, and her husband is doing time in prison for dealing drugs. "He'll be inside for 7–15 years," she said, "so I have to provide for the kids on my own."

Many sex workers from different Moldovan cities have also expressed shock at the growing number of juveniles on the streets. "The youngest girls are just 12," said one sex worker. "The police are aware of it; the social workers probably are too, but no-one is lifting a finger to rescue them." She pauses, and then continues pensively, "I think the men should have a few basic morals, too..."    

This article is the result of extensive, long-term research by a team of journalists in the Republic of Moldova that included DW correspondent Violeta Colesnic in Chisinau. The journalists spoke to over 40 sex workers from a variety of towns and cities across the country. It was originally published in Romanian.