A case study presented by Gulnara Kurmanova at the 24th Program Coordinating Board (UNAIDS) Meeting, Thematic Segment People on the Move, June 2009.
Venera, a 31-year-old transgender woman who is a sex worker. Five years ago she came to Bishkek from a small village in the north of the country. Her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. She lost her father because of tuberculosis when she was still a kid. She had changed schools and been placed in an orphanage in the village near the bigger town of Talass. Venera didn’t receive her secondary school diploma; like many others, she is embarrassed to say she is barely literate. She has no chance to get a good job in a nice place. At the same time she has dignity; Venera wants to be the woman she sees herself to be. Unfortunately, street sex work is the only space where she can come close to being herself. She is ok with earning money by selling sex. As a sex worker, she cannot work in her village because neighbors know her and judge her. She cannot work in Talass because she cannot wear women’s clothes there, a city with old Muslim traditions. Venera came to the capital city, Bishkek, to do sex work.
Currently Venera lives and works in Bishkek. She has problems with the police often, once or even two times a month and recently every week. The police arrest and detain her ‘because she has no passport.’ She prefers to say that she lost her passport, because her passport is a man’s passport, and her appearance is a woman’s appearance. For these reasons, she is currently an undocumented migrant. The police tell her that she is arrested for doing sex work and that she is not a human being anymore since she is a prostitute. She cannot argue that sex work is itself decriminalized in Kyrgyz Republic, because she is nobody to the police: she has no passport. The police ask her about money. They use her vulnerability to extort as much money as they can. She feeds the police, not herself, because they extort almost all the money she earns. Maybe the passport and resident permit could make her life better, but it is too expensive to pay for trip to Talass where she originally got her passport, and it would take months to collect all the necessary documents.
Her clients and street hooligans beat Venera often because of her feminine appearance. They think that she is not a human being anymore if she neglects ‘men’s honor’. Last October she faced a life-threatening situation when young men dragged her to their fancy black Mercedes without plates and took her to the outskirts of the city. They beat her severely, her face, her chest, her genitals; they raped her, burned her eyelashes, nipples and genitalia and threatened her with a gun. They said they would kill her if she told anyone. She wanted to file a report with the police, but they insulted her for being transgender and for sodomy and did not accept her complaint. Now she trusts the police even less.
Venera learned about a health problem three years ago but didn’t believe those who tested her. She didn’t receive proper pre-testing counseling. A doctor just told her that she should be tested when her friend convinced her to visit a clinic to ensure that she had no STIs. The doctor didn’t speak Kyrgyz, and Venera doesn’t speak Russian well. She didn’t understand a lot of what he said. Venera doesn’t discuss her health status with her friends. She does not trust medical services that treat her behavior, not her needs. In order to identify whether she needs treatment or not, she has to visit a doctor. She doesn’t visit a doctor because she doesn’t believe in any governmental institutions and tries to avoid contact with them. She knows from her experience that there is no confidentiality in governmental clinics and her secret could be revealed. She is afraid they might inform the police about her health status. She thinks that in this case she will be not able to work any more and lose her only source of income. She knows that other sex workers prefer to move to another city to be tested there. She is going to do the same later when she earns enough money.