The life I lead

Author: Giorgi Dundua

Between the capital's central station and the circus, there are places where a "sexual contract" is made and a body is traded for cash. 
Commercial sex is not legal in Georgia but has become widespread, according to a 2014 study by the international foundation Curatsio and the Tanadgoma Center for Information and Counseling on Reproductive Health.
In Georgia, commercial sex work – otherwise known as prostitution – is closely linked to the poverty and general unrest in the 1990s and early 2000s. While it provides women with a way to support themselves, sex work is the subject of stigma and discrimination.
"The body I Live In" is the story of ten women in the capital, Tbilisi. I began documenting their lives when I was researching prostitution in Georgia for a German study. Most of the women I met don't live with their families due to abusive husbands. Some of them are still unable to escape the cycle of abuse out of fear they will lose their homes. They go out late at night and start walking the streets, looking for clients. They say this work is still unstable and risky. They continually face the threat of violence, as well as mental health problems that include the fear of rejection and insecurity.
Curatio and Tanadgoma's 2017 study of 300 commercial sex workers found that 21 percent of the women had been victims of violence at least once. The women who participated in the study spoke about the health risk although few were informed about of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases – in part because they are discriminated against by doctors.
The problems these women face are rarely discussed in the media.
But they do everything they can to hold on, to live a normal life during the day. They make food, clean their homes, care for their children, go to church and pray…here are their stories:

Marina, 29

“I came to Tbilisi in 2012 after I got divorced and decided to live on my own. It was very difficult to live with a 2-year-old baby. I thought I would continue studying, but it turned out I was just dreaming. It was almost impossible to raise my child alone and get an education at the same time.
My apartment was near Station Square, so it was cheap. Still, sometimes I could not pay the rent for two months. My baby needed food. My parents did not help. My mom lived abroad. The situation was bad. I decided to earn money this way. It was very difficult at first. I cried almost every day… Then I met other girls and it got easier. My baby grew up, but as she got older, she needed more support from me.
I know I can't get another job, especially since I’m a sex worker. So I have to keep living this way. I’m scared of everyone and everything around. I don't even know what tomorrow will bring. Only my daughter keeps me alive. And I can’t think much about the future… It scares me."

Sopha, 36

“I escaped an abusive husband. Actually, I escaped a nightmare. Sometimes I wonder how I managed to do it. Probably, I was a strong woman.
Who enjoys living like this? Constant fear, threats from my family, humiliation – this is my daily life, which I even start to love sometimes. If I didn't, I would become very weak.
I find it hard to live away from everything and everyone. Actually, I don’t live – I just try to survive. I wanted to start a small business. I also used to work in a secondhand clothing store. But everything is harder for a poor person. This is not an easy job either – you start hating your own body and sometimes you think you shouldn't exist, but the next day you still wake up.
I try to show people that I am a normal person, someone just like them. I get hurt and I feel happy, just like them. But it’s hard. If I had lived in different conditions, probably I would also have a hard time understanding this lifestyle. If you haven’t experienced it, you will never understand.
Now I live with my friends and it makes us all stronger. I am under terrible stress and I need treatment but what can I tell my psychologist? Do you think it's easy to speak up? You know, we have some rights too…"

Khato, 32  

"To me, Tbilisi was like paradise and hell at the same time. After I got divorced, I was left alone in this big and terrible city. There was no difference between the beggars and me in the street. I could not choose their path. So I found a 'better' solution. Mentally, I was in a very bad state and that has not improved. It's so hard to do what you know you would never do if you had the choice. I have been a victim of violence several times. Not only our clients but also the beggars abuse us physically and mentally. It’s ridiculous but not even the police can protect us. I remember once I went to a policeman and he didn't even know what the word "harassment" meant. There’s no point in asking them to help.
I‘ve moved many times. You can't hide what you do for a living. I‘ve changed my address six times. I have a son, too. He is the reason why I still fight. Otherwise, I would’ve lost and given up everything a long time ago. I go to church and pray, even though sometimes I don't even understand the context. I still believe that only God can save us. I‘m very scared of someone harming my son – he is as unprotected as I am."

Matso, 38

"A lot was missing from my childhood. I was the third child and the only daughter in my family. I always felt unwanted, like I was growing up in someone else's house. When I was 18, I was not allowed to continue my studies. They forced me to get married immediately. My husband drank a lot and he often hit me when he was drunk. I fled the village and came to Tbilisi. Members of my family threatened to kill me if I didn't go back to my husband. I was afraid, but I also wanted to be alone for a while. Then I was raped and it radically changed my life. I became careless. Nothing meant anything to me anymore. I had an abortion because I didn’t have money. Then I started working as a salesperson in a store. Things would often be stolen from the store and I got fired as a result. It was the worst period of my life. I had nothing left but to trade my body. I do the same today. I somehow got used to it. If I feel bad, I drink. I think I'm not that unhappy."

Nato, 35

“I got married very early because I got pregnant. I had three children. I don't know how, but I raised them in very poor conditions. My husband used to be very abusive toward me. I knew I couldn't take it any longer, so I left home. I went to Turkey for work. I was deported and couldn't go back. So my friends recommended a brothel. I was treated horribly there. I’m not doing great now, but I feel better compared to how I felt there.
I have some health issues, but I need 300-400 GEL for treatment so I haven‘t been able to take care of it yet. The money I earn is unstable. I communicate with my children via the Internet. Of course, they don't know what I do for a living. I don’t want people to recognize me, which is why I have had several plastic surgeries.
It is a very difficult job. Sometimes our clients don't even give us money and we can’t force them to pay. I often think about quitting, but first – I can‘t find anything else, and second, my good name has already been destroyed so I don’t see the point in proving anything to anyone."

Tatka, 29

“It‘s very difficult for me to talk about my past. It is a hell of a life that gets more and more difficult as time goes by. I got divorced because of my mother-in-law. She didn't like me and always tried to turn my husband against me. I left and rented a house. I was raising my children alone and I went through very difficult times. I remember my child had pneumonia and I couldn't even afford the medication. I sacrificed myself and became a sex worker. I am fighting for my children and it doesn’t matter how I do that. I have lots of problems. I never have enough money. I never feel safe. I‘m afraid that someone will kill me in the street. I plan to keep on doing the same thing until I buy a house. I pay a lot for rent. My children will soon go to school and they’ll need more money. I don't care about myself. I know my friends have different diseases, but what’s the point of worrying about it? No one is willing help. When we go to the doctors, they look at us as if we have killed a man. Sometimes I want to run away from this country, but that also requires some willpower. I spend my days with my children. And at night, I go out to work."

Rita, 34

“I was born in Gori, but I have lived in Tbilisi since I was 27. I got married here. Unfortunately, my husband died soon after that. I was under terrible pressure from my family, and I did not even think about getting married again. My father-in-law raped me and that destroyed my spirit. I needed some medical treatment. As soon as I got better, I left the women’s shelter. I had nothing. No house, no money, nothing at all. I started trading my body in the street. It became very dangerous. One of the clients hurt my eye during a fight. Fortunately, he was punished. But no one punishes those who insult us verbally every single day.
I have heart problems. The drugs are so expensive that I can't buy them. This is a very difficult job. I used to work at a hotel, but there were different problems all the time. The street is safer but we are scared of the violent clients here.
There are lots of problems inside the circle as well: girls are constantly stealing clients from each other and it causes endless controversy. I have cut off contact with society. I couldn’t keep on living otherwise. When I have free time, I work on enamel jewelry. Sometimes I sell my artwork, but it's too difficult to sell.

I've made a lot of mistakes and I guess there are many more to come. It’s very hard to find the right path and it’s even harder for a woman, especially one with no education and few diplomas."

Dali, "Age is just a number“

 "I don’t have a family. I only have good friends who have accepted me the way I am. Two months ago I was diagnosed with a serious disease. The state will cover the treatment costs, but I will have to leave this job forever. I'm happy about that, but I can't deal with my problems. I have to sell everything I‘ve bought so far. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m not afraid. I somehow got used to not wanting much from this life."

Mari, 28

“It's very hard for me to live in Georgia. I remember when I was being chased by people who wanted to kill me. There was the same situation in my neighborhood and the street. Even my friends were scary. The most difficult part is to continue living after you have survived. My life is full of fear and oppression. I am physically healthy, but what about my inner self? I have tried many things but they didn't work. I‘m not happy nor do I like how I live, but I can’t see any other way.“

Zhana, 33

“I think I am in this situation because I grew up in a very poor family. I got married so early that I didn‘t even have a chance to think about life. Soon after, I broke up with my husband and was kicked out of the house. Some of my friends were already sex workers, so it was not too hard for me to do the same. Sometime later I realized that I‘d chosen the wrong path, but I couldn’t change anything. Being a sex worker is as difficult as many other jobs today. I’m constantly afraid that someone will find out about it and will start gossiping about me. I'm also afraid of all the diseases. Well, at least I can treat the diseases, but what can I do about the rest?
I don't like the way I live, but I can't do anything else. I‘d like to work as a flight attendant and I somehow try to achieve this goal, but nothing has come out yet."


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