When Tonya came to Kyiv (Kiev) from her small hometown in western Ukraine to study, it was a route out of the dreary provincial life she had grown to hate. She struggled to make ends meet. Her parents, with a combined monthly income of around $200, were hardly in a position to help fund her studies.
Tonya feared she would have to give up and return home. But then she found a way to stay: selling her body to foreign men.
"My choice was to work as a prostitute or go home," she says, glancing around nervously. "I would never have done it but for the circumstances. I don't want to work as a prostitute, but I need to get an education so I can get a decent job."
Tonya is one of thousands of women who are part of an industry that has boomed in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991: sex tourism.
The problem is already so acute that Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine's interior minister, declared on national television earlier this year that "The country is becoming a paradise for sex tourism before our eyes."
And with the economic crisis hitting Ukraine harder than most countries in Europe – unemployment has soared by more than 50 percent in the past year – rights groups are concerned that desperation is causing more women to make decisions like Tonya's.
"The problem was bad before the crisis, but now it's booming," says Anna Hutsol, head of the nongovernmental women's rights group FEMEN.
Ms. Hutsol says that foreign men are taking advantage of the fall of the national currency, the hryvna, which has lost around 40 percent of its value against the dollar and the euro since the start of the crisis. They are also attracted by the visa-free regime for US and EU citizens introduced in 2005, and the advent of cheap flights from EU countries.
Police predict doubling of sex industry to $1.5 billion
The number of visitors to Ukraine has surged in recent years – last year alone saw an increase of 2 million – and although there is no way of tracking them, both the authorities and rights groups note that the number of sex tourists is mushrooming.
A police estimate in February forecast that the sex industry is set to more than double in value, going from $700 million in 2008 to $1.5 billion this year.
Some hotels are, as Hutsol puts it, "basically brothels" – last year saw two concierges arrested at two of the city's elite hotels for allegedly helping guests find prostitutes. Dozens of websites play on Ukrainian women's reputed beauty, advertising girls with price lists for the "services" they offer as well as testimonies from clients. They also offer tips to get girls past hotel security late at night.
Many websites peddle the myth that prostitution is legal in Ukraine. It isn't, but punishment is meted out only to prostitutes themselves – not clients – in the form of fines ranging from $6 to $30. A bill introduced in parliament in February proposing fines for clients was quietly dropped.
"No one cares about us," says Tonya. "What I'm most frightened of is that it will never end."
More subtle forms, too
Not only do the police lack the legal means to tackle the problem, Kyiv's police chief charged this past winter that some also provide "cover" for prostitutes and brothel owners.
"We have information that [brothels] are 'protected' by police officers," said Vitaliy Yarema in December. "When you drive along the street and see prostitutes, I am sure that this is impossible without [the help of] the police."
There are concerns that the authorities are not taking the problem seriously. Mykhailo Andrienko, head of the interior ministry's department for combating human trafficking, says that "statistics show" that prostitution is on the wane because potential clients can't afford to pay. He declined to give specific figures, and added that sex tourism "is not as big a problem as people think."
But Hutsol says prostitution is not limited to those advertising themselves as such.
Visit any one of the bars and clubs in downtown Kyiv frequented by expats and the likelihood is high of encountering scantily clad girls.
"It often starts off with a cocktail, then dinner," says Hutsol. "Then, before she knows it, the girl is in bed. She has become a prostitute without even recognizing it herself."
Some haunts are renowned for their "ladies' nights," where women can enjoy free drinks with no men around, before the horde is unleashed later in the evening.
"Foreigners take advantage of girls' poverty and lack of education," says Hutsol, who says Ukraine never experienced women's emancipation. "Why book a prostitute when you can just buy a student a cocktail and promise to take her to Paris?"
2 in 3 young women offered sex by a foreigner
A survey last autumn by FEMEN revealed that an astonishing 67.5 percent of women in Kyiv between 17 and 22 had received an offer from foreigners of money for sex. And with the Euro 2012 soccer tournament fast approaching, when thousands of male fans are expected to descend on the country, concerns that the problem is not being taken seriously enough by the authorities or society led FEMEN to take to the streets to draw attention to the problem.
FEMEN, which was founded last year and is mostly made up of students, has organized a number of colorful protests in Kyiv's main square, with girls dressed up as prostitutes holding signs in English, German, and Russian reading, "Ukraine is not a brothel," and, "Sex is not for sale."
At a protest on Sunday, the participants ignored catcalls from a group of drunken Ukrainian men.
FEMEN hopes to spread across Europe to raise awareness of the human trafficking that has resulted in Ukrainian prostitutes populating brothels throughout Europe. But for now at least, the group has its work cut out in Ukraine.