MYKOLAYIV, Ukraine, June 15, 2013 (AFP) - Sasha, 17, hides her face under the brim of her baseball cap as she recounts how a lack of food and clothing in her boarding school three years ago forced her to turn to prostitution.
She is one of many young women from the former shipbuilding hub and now depressed southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv who at a young age felt forced to provide sex for money or services.
But along with dozens of others she now has a glimmer of hope and wants to get back to a normal life with the help of rehabilitation centres supported by UN Children's Fund UNICEF.
"My mum was a single mother and went to Russia when I was two years old. She left and never came back," said Sasha, who declined to give her surname.
Her grandmother was left to take care of her and her stepsister, but she could not handle the pressure. So the social services took the girl first to an orphanage, and then when she was six years old she went to a boarding school.
Sasha says that starting at the age of 14 she periodically ran away from the boarding school, a tough institution that houses orphans and problem children.
She and her friends would then be brought back by the police. The sense of utter destitution pushed her towards working on the streets.
"We needed the money. We wanted clothes, food, and we were often malnourished. Others had nice clothes but we had nothing to buy," said Sasha.
The risks of such work are clear: the Mykolayiv region has one of the highest levels in Ukraine of HIV-related fatalities in the age group of 15 to 24 years.
-- 'They don't call it prostitution' --
Olena Sakovych, the adolescent development specialist at the UNICEF Office in Ukraine, said that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and practising unsafe sexual behaviour are more at risk of contracting diseases, including HIV.
"They have a lack of knowledge, lack of information, they are left alone with themselves and do not know what to do."
Sasha recalled how a volunteer from the UNICEF-backed Unitus centre came to the boarding school to tell the young sex workers about the chances of another life. It brought her to the centre.
"I liked being here, the people here are so kind, they began to tell us what is possible, what is not, how to get out of any situation," she said.
Unlike Sasha, other girls at the centre are not so ready to say they were engaged in prostitution. Centre workers say many are in a state of denial about whether they have ever been prostitutes.
"Girls do not call what they do prostitution," Natalia Babenko, the project coordinator at the Unitus centre said.
She said some girls merely recount how men bought lipstick for them, tights, or just took them to the cinema in exchange for sex.
All of the girls are from problem families and have little idea about basic sexual health, the social worker said. "By the age of 14 they have had half a dozen partners."
-- 'You must cure the soul' --
Babenko emphasised that the main objectives of the project are prevention and access to services.
"We test for HIV, sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis. In parallel, we conduct classes often in a playful way, because you cannot heal the body if you do not cure the soul."
According to Babenko, the girls are encouraged to bring friends and acquaintances to the centre and can also learn how to explain their experiences to others.
"If every one of them brought at least five of their friends or acquaintances it would be very good."
When the project started four years ago, only a few dozen people joined the programme. But now it covers 300-400 girls.
"Now I am a student in a cultural college, I live in a dormitory," Sasha said, adding that in the future she wants to become either a musician or a film director.
She also has hopes now of a fulfilling, and safe, private life. "I met a guy two-and-a-half years ago. Neither he nor I have any infections. So maybe we will get married in the future."
According to estimates by the UNICEF office in Ukraine, the number of underage girls involved in commercial sex in Ukraine is as high as 15,000.
The number of young prostitutes engaging in unprotected sex is still high but falling sharply.
The Ukrainian Institute of Social Studies said that of those teenage girls engaged in prostitution, those having unprotected sex had decreased from 62 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2011.