Topless Women Protest Rampant Sex Trade and Violence Against Women in Ukraine

PHOTO: The women?s rights group Femen, who stage topless protests against prostitution and sex trafficking, organized a demonstration in front of the General Prosecutors Office of Ukraine in the capital, Kyiv.Courtesy of FEMEN
The women's rights group Femen, who stage topless protests against prostitution and sex trafficking, organized a demonstration in front of the General Prosecutors Office of Ukraine in the capital, Kyiv.

A group of bare-breasted young women scaled the front of the General Prosecutor's Office of Ukraine this week, carrying signs saying "Death to Rapists" and "The Country Wants Vengeance," protesting the handling of the case of a young woman who was raped, dumped in a ditch and set on fire.

The demonstration in support of Oksana Makar, whose case has horrified Ukraine, is just the latest for the topless activists from the women's group Femen, which protests against prostitution, sex trafficking and violence against women.

"We want to scare men who think they can treat women like animals. We want to bring attention to this problem -- to let the world know what is happening in this country and to stop it," said Inna Shevchenko, one of the participants in the protest.

Click here to view photographs of Femen protesters.

"Every day Ukrainian women are raped. Women are too scared to talk about it because no one will protect them. They're too shy to tell the police they're the victims of rape, because they know that the police won't help. And even if women report rape cases to the police, no one helps them because people are not surprised by rape here," Shevchenko said.

On March 8, International Women's Day, Femen activists were arrested for protesting topless in Istanbul, Turkey. They were held in prison overnight and then deported. A few days before, Femen activists were arrested in Moscow, Russia, for protesting against unfair presidential elections.

In January, three topless Femen protesters tried to break into the heavily-guarded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Temperatures in the snow-filled town were around freezing, but that did not stop the female protesters from stripping down to their pants and snow boots. The women were arrested as they were trying to climb over a fence into the invitation-only conference.

"We came here to Switzerland to Davos to explain the position of all poor people of the world, to explain that we are poor because of these rich people who now sit in the building," said Shevchenko.

Shevchenko and other protesters spent a few hours in the police station before being released.

"We are glad to see that in European countries the police follow democratic rules, not like in our country, Ukraine, where we are arrested during each protest or like in Belarus, where we were aggressed by the KGB," said Shevchenko.

In December, while protesting in Belarus, Shevchenko and several other Femen protesters were "blindfolded and put on a bus. Then they took us to the woods, poured oil over us, forced us to undress -- threatening to set fire to us or stab us with knives. They later used those knives to cut our hair, and then put green antiseptic on our heads," Shevchenko said. "After all that, they left us in the forest without documents or money. They told us if we ever return to Belarus we would be killed."

But despite the protesters' recent arrests in Turkey and Switzerland and the alleged harassment they experienced in Belarus, the group says they are already organizing new protests, and planning to open branches all over the world.

The Femen movement was founded by Anna Hutsol in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2008. Hutsol decided to start the group to protest sex tourism, sex trafficking and prostitution in the country.

The Ukranian city of Odessa, which was once a center of organized crime, is now a major hub for the sex trade, a multi-billion dollar international business.

"Feminism does not exist in Ukraine -- people do not know about it," Shevchenko said.

But some feminists are speaking out against members of Femen.

Ukranian feminist scholar Oksana Kis says Femen has done little to help the cause.

"If we ask what they achieved after four years of activity, we can state confidently: the only visible achievement is their own extreme popularity. They are very visible in media because of their sensationalist style of actions. It looks like the real goal is their self promotion," Kis told ABC News.

Initially Femen's street protests used the slogan "Ukraine is not a brothel," but Kis says the group has moved away from women's rights.

"Femen has nothing to do with feminism whatsoever. This is an informal group of young, pretty, well-shaped women who started with a good idea to draw public attention to very important social problem of sex tourism. It's OK to shock society in order to raise the issue, but when public nudity becomes the only way to deliver a message -- it's more than strange. And the message itself seems to get lost while media focus on their nakedness," Kis said.

Since the group's founding, Femen has protested a range of social issues.

"We are doing more and more protests abroad like in Switzerland against prostitution and at the Davos forum, in Italy against [Prime Minister] Berlusconi and Pope [Benedict], in Russia for the freedom to vote, in France against [Dominique Straus-Kahn], in Bulgaria against domestic violence, and in Belarus against the president," Shevchenko said.

Femen does not collaborate with any other Ukrainian women's NGOs, and protests a range of social issues.

"They present themselves as feminists to the western media and at the same time reject any association with feminism in their interviews to national media. ... In my opinion, they use feminism symbolic capital instrumentally, to obtain some popularity in the West, where their represent themselves as the only women's rights advocates in Ukraine," Kis said.

Femen is not the only women's rights group in Ukraine. There are more than 1,000 women's groups active in Ukraine today, including La Strada, which works to prevent trafficking of women all over central and eastern Europe. The organization has a hotline that victims of the sex trade can reach at any time.

Kis said the Femen protests are not effective in making a positive change for women, but instead work against what other women's groups in Ukraine are fighting for.

"I find their activism making more harm than good for women's rights advocacy in Ukraine," Kis said. "Ukraine is now famous as a country where pretty young women walk naked down the streets -- is that not a hidden propaganda of sex tourism?"

The Femen members defend their method of protesting, saying that instead of being forced to undress for one man, they are undressing in front of the world by their own free will, claiming ownership of their bodies.

"For me, the best and only way to be free is to take off my clothes not in front of one man, as his slave, but in front of the world, showing that to be undressed can have another meaning -- not against a woman but for her," Shevchenko said.