“At one point in my life I found myself in a challenging economic environment in Russia, and I had a really difficult period of time,” says Irina Maslova, a women human rights defender in Russia. “I know what sex work is from the inside, and I know its different aspects very well.”
Irina began her life as an activist working for an organization that focused on HIV prevention for sex workers. She began thinking about other rights sex workers are denied, and felt that in order for real progress, laws needed to be changed to protect sex workers as well. This was the beginning of Silver Rose, which Irina formed in 2006 to provide legal support for sex workers and lobby for legislative change in Russia to protect their human rights.
Irina says that many sex workers are marginalized and vulnerable before they begin sex work. “The weak should have the right of protection. If a government fails to protect one social group, it fails to protect everyone,” says Irina. “Revolution starts from the bottom, when those who were excluded from this life have to fight for their right to get back in.”
Prostitution is punishable by fine in Russia, but in actuality, sex workers are treated much more harshly by Russian law enforcement, as well as by vigilantes who raid brothels, publicly shame sex workers, and commit violent attacks against them. “The actual law enforcement practice that we see now every day all over the county, in every city and towards every sex worker, shows us that sex workers are considered to be criminals and they don’t have the right of defense,” says Irina. For example, earlier this year, a vigilante group led by Vyacheslav Datsik (a former mixed-martial arts fighter) raided brothels and forced sex workers and clients to remove their clothes and march naked through St. Petersburg, with night-time temperatures near freezing. The vigilantes filmed as they marched the sex workers through the streets to a nearby police station, then posted the footage on YouTube. The police held more than 50 sex workers for a day—still without clothes—before Silver Rose intervened and provided clothing and legal aid.
“This is my fight—against injustice, cruelty, and freedom of choice. In my country [sex work] is a choice of necessity, but it’s a free choice,” says Irina. “I have control over my body. Today they are pressing down sex workers, and tomorrow they may introduce a law to limit women’s control over their bodies in some other way. It’s all connected.”
Silver Rose—and Irina personally—face regular public criticism, attacks, and posts on social media calling for “eliminating” the organization. The organization had to install a security system in their offices, and Irina herself carries a panic button in case she is attacked. Her lawyers have recommended she hire a personal security team, and she has had to move loved ones out of her house for safety reasons.
Still, Irina is committed to her work, and will continue to advocate for sex workers’ rights until laws criminalizing sex work are repealed. “You become strong yourself when you realize that three million people are behind you,” says Irina. “We fight until the end. We have nothing to lose.”
Revolution starts from the bottom, when those who were excluded from this life have to fight for their right to get back in.Irina Maslova