Kiev: Yulia, a 20-year-old call girl, is awaiting Euro 2012 with a mix of excitement and dread. She`s upped her rates in the hope of earning enough to go to college next year, but "every girl is afraid," she admits. "Anything can happen."
Ukraine has a booming prostitution industry — and the already high number of women scouting the streets, bars and hotels of the country`s four host cities for clients is expected to spike even further this month as hundreds of thousands of football fans converge on the country.
Experts are warning about the high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases: Some 1.1 percent of the adult population and nearly one out of 10 prostitutes are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the United Nations AIDS agency.
"They will be playing Ukrainian roulette," said Kostiantyn Pertsovskyi, spokesman for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine, which will be handing out nearly 1 million condoms to fans and prostitutes during the tournament. "If a fan is not using a condom, he has a very good chance of getting infected."
La Strada, a Ukrainian women`s rights group, is particularly concerned about an increase of underage prostitution, with scores of orphaned or destitute teenagers lured — and often forced — to service clients.
Yulia, who declined to give her last name for fear of being prosecuted, has been studying basic English words, communicating with prospective clients online and assembling a new wardrobe of flashy dresses and high-heeled shoes. She`s also been learning what she calls "European manners."
She plans to raise her hourly rate of 600 hryvna ($75; €60) to 900 hryvna ($115; €90) and hopes to save enough money to go to college next year to study music and fulfill her life dream of becoming a singer.
Yulia came to Kiev to escape poverty in her provincial hometown in southern Ukraine where both of her parents are unemployed. With no college education, few skills, no jobs around and a family to support, she became a prostitute at 18.
She now earns about 10,000 hryvna ($1,250; €1,000) per month — averaging about 2-3 clients a day — at hotels, apartments and in cars. For many that`s an enviable income compared with the national monthly average of 3,000 hryvna ($375; €300). But the money has a price.
"Physically, morally, psychologically it`s very hard. Each client needs a special approach, you need to please everyone," Yulia said as she came to a support center on the outskirts of Kiev to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, load up on free condoms and take a class in art therapy.
"It`s not easy, there is always fear. Every girl is afraid because she doesn`t know what she is about to see, what will happen to her, what to expect. Anything can happen." Once, she recalled, she came to a Kiev flat, expecting one client, but instead found two who violently raped her.
"I couldn`t get out of the apartment, I couldn`t convince them, so I just closed my eyes and that was it."
In Ukraine, underage sexual workers are rarely treated as victims of child molestation or forced labor, but instead are often punished and harassed for engaging in prostitution. Providing sexual services constitutes a misdemeanor here punishable by fines of about $20, but in practice prostitutes have to buy police protection with money and sex. Soliciting sexual workers is legal.
"In our country, children providing sexual services are not regarded as victims but as culprits," said Mariana Yevsyukova, a legal expert with La Strada, adding that no measures have been taken to protect such teenagers ahead of the football tournament. "My heart is very angry over this. Our government did not react to this in time."
Officials are playing down the threat, saying fans will be too busy enjoying soccer games to look for adventure on the streets.
Euro 2008 co-hosts Austria and Switzerland "also expected sex tourism, but fans didn`t have time for this: it was either football or beer," said Oleh Matveitsov, an Interior Ministry official charged with security measures during the Euros. While some measures have been taken to get the call girls off the streets, experts say many of those women will simply go online to look for clients.
The country`s leaders have done little to alter the image of Ukraine as a top destination for sex tourists and men shopping for mail-order brides. President Viktor Yanukovych last year invited foreign investors to Ukraine to see blooming chestnut trees and observe "how women begin to take their clothes off when it gets warm in Ukrainian cities."
Femen, Ukraine`s controversial women`s rights movement which stages topless protests, has vowed to disrupt the championship with rallies, pranks and disturbances to protest the prostitution spike.
"Today Ukraine has turned into a huge brothel, Europe`s center for sex tourism, and Ukrainian women will suffer from that, Ukrainian women will become sex slaves during Euro 2012," said Inna Shevchenko, a top activist with the group.
Critics say Femen is itself fueling the perception of Ukrainian women as sex objects. The group protests against prostitution with half-naked activists posing in front of television cameras in erotic poses.
Yulia Tsarevska, whose advocacy group provides moral, educational and medical support to Yulia and other call girls in Kiev and around the country, says the girls have been translating their ads into English in recent weeks.
"They are waiting, they are getting ready, they are going to beauty parlors, they are raising their prices," she said.
Yulia admits to harboring faint hopes that one of her clients may fall in love with her and take her away from Ukraine, similar to what happened to Julia Roberts` heroine in "Pretty Woman," a movie she loves.
"It would be great to live in other countries, but I don`t think that people would come and would choose a wife here in Ukraine among call girls," she says. "Although everything can happen."