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Central Asia:  Child prostitution exposed

Publish Date: 27 Jan 2004

Source:  IWPR (Institute for War & Peace Reporting)
By Mike Farquhar in London (RCA No. 260, 27-Jan-04)

Latest IWPR investigation finds that girls as young as 11 are selling themselves on the streets – and some adolescents are trafficked to the Gulf.

“I’m 15 now. Eighteen months ago my mother told me, ‘I raised you, fed and clothed you. Now that I am out of work it’s your turn to feed me. Since you have no skills, go and sell your body.’”

Karlygash, from Almaty, Kazakstan, was one of many young girls interviewed as part of an IWPR investigation into the problem of underage prostitution in Central Asia. In the course of this work, a team of IWPR contributors discovered a thriving market in underage sex – mainly with young girls, although boys are also involved – and spoke to minors involved in the business.

The journalists found that children as young as 11 are tricked into working for pimps, and others are sold or loaned into the sex trade by desperate parents. Some are even trafficked abroad to work as prostitutes or to be passed on to wealthy buyers seeking a wife.

Many of the young sex workers interviewed told of broken homes, childhood abuse and poverty. In a region that has seen huge upheavals since the fall of the Soviet Union, social services are painfully ill-equipped to deal with such problems.

And while there are mechanisms for addressing the issue from a legal point of view in each of the four countries included in the investigation – Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – police corruption and under-funding mean the existence of these laws has only a limited effect.

The investigation began in southern Kyrgyzstan. Having been told that underage prostitutes are commonly found in the smaller urban centres where unemployment and poverty are rife, an IWPR contributor travelled to Kyzylkia, a town of 25,000 that declined dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the closure of the local coal mines.

The journalist went to a hotel which had been “recommended” by a guard at the airport in Osh. There, the check-in clerk told him about a particular small shop and gave him a password which, when he arrived at the place, produced an offer of adolescent girls.

To get a broader picture, the contributor then hired a taxi driver to help arrange some “leisure activities”. He was taken to a block of flats, where he was informed that all apartments leading off one entrance were being used as brothels. A knock at the first door produced a teenage boy who turned them away, saying, “All the girls are busy today.” On the second floor, the girl who opened the door told them that the “girls only work here, they don’t do visits”. A floor up, the door opened to a girl of about 14 who asked them to come in. But the contributor declined, hearing drunken voices from inside.

The problem of child prostitution is by no means limited to Kyrgyzstan. Erasyl Abylkasymov, a parliamentary deputy in Kazakstan, told IWPR, “People of that sexual orientation go there [to brothels]. In [the Kazak capital] Astana alone, I’ve heard there are two or three such clubs, and there are five or six in Almaty. They have started to appear in other cities too.”

Outside of these organised brothels, other girls simply work the streets. Kazak police records suggest about a third of all streetwalkers in the country are underage.

A police officer in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR contributors that underage prostitutes ply their trade in the city’s bustling markets. Traders pay with goods worth five or six somoni – about two US dollars – to have sex with the girls on building sites, in abandoned buildings and in public toilets, he said.

In Uzbekistan, conservative attitudes and a reluctance on the part of officials to show their country in a bad light meant that information on the situation was harder to come by. But the Centre for Democratic Initiatives in Samarkand has files on cases where underage girls have been tricked into prostitution and Alisher Akbarov, a professor of medicine in the capital Tashkent, said he had seen cases, although he was keen to stress they were exceptions.

Besides the domestic sex trade, many young girls are also trafficked from Central Asia to Western Europe and the Gulf to enter into prostitution there or to be handed over as wives to wealthy buyers.

A study by the International Organisation for Migration suggests that more than 4,000 women and girls – perhaps 400 of them minors – are trafficked abroad every year from Kyrgyzstan alone, and IWPR contributors spoke to people in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who had witnessed the problem in those countries.

A Tajik businessman who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for several years, and who asked not to be identified, said Tajik girls are often tricked into believing there is a well-paid, legitimate job waiting for them in the Emirates. Once there, they are turned over to a pimp. Virgins and underage girls are the most prized commodities and fetch the highest prices, he said.

In Uzbekistan, an IWPR contributor spoke to Mavluda, who sold her 15-year-old daughter to a wealthy buyer in the Gulf. Claiming the girl needed no coercing, she argued, “Better to give my daughter to a rich sheikh for 5,000 dollars than lead a beggarly existence.”

Poverty appears to be a major cause of underage prostitution and child trafficking in Central Asia, with childhood sexual abuse appearing time and time again as another significant factor.

“I was raped when I was 11,” said Nazira, a young girl from Naryn who now works as a prostitute in Bishkek. “I told my mother but instead of feeling sorry for me, she beat me up and sent me to Bishkek to live with my aunt.” Once in the capital, it wasn’t long before Naryn, then 13, met her first pimp, Vera, who offered her a job. “I knew what sex was all about, so I agreed,” she said.

Another young girl, 12-year-old Katya, who has lived at the Child Adaptation and Rehabilitation Centre in Bishkek for three years, told teachers that her mother let her partner abuse her when she was only six, in exchange for a bottle of vodka. Psychologists say Katya has a “highly accelerated sexuality” and that she is trying to meet paedophiles.

There are legal mechanisms for addressing the problem of child prostitution in all of the Central Asian states in which IWPR carried out its investigation. In each of the countries, acting as a pimp, running a brothel and having sex with a person under the age of 16 are all illegal.

But police corruption is a major obstacle to the effective enforcement of these laws.

Madina, who is now 16 and works as a prostitute in the Kyrgyz town of Osh said her regular clients include police officers and local officials. And Vladimir Tiupin, of the Oasis foundation, told IWPR that young boys working as prostitutes are sometimes used by the local police in blackmail schemes. Big businessmen or government officials are photographed or filmed with the boys, having been introduced to them in saunas or at their homes, and the police then use this evidence to extort money or privileges, he said.

While Kazakstan’s interior ministry says it has made some progress in addressing child prostitution – with a 40 per cent decrease in the number of minors detained for engaging in such activities – it’s neighbours currently seem to be losing the battle.

As the HIV/AIDS infection rate increases in Central Asia, putting young sex workers’ lives increasingly at risk, combating police corruption and developing a more efficient law enforcement system will be an important step towards addressing the problem.

Mike Farquhar is an IWPR editorial intern. This story is based on the report Lost Children of Central Asia, the full text of which can be found at http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200401_257_2_eng.txt

© 2004 Institute for War & Peace Reporting