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IWPR, January 16, 2008

Prostitution Thrives in Afghanistan

The oldest profession is alive and well in carefully-concealed brothels and on the streets.

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif

“I do not enjoy being with men. I hate them. But to keep them as loyal customers, I pretend,” said the young Afghan woman.

Dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, with shoulder-length black hair and wearing no makeup, 21-year-old Saida (not her real name) looked ordinary enough. But in this highly conservative society, she has sex with men for money, sometimes several times a night.

Saida’s father and older brother were killed in the civil war of the Nineties, and she lives with her mother and younger siblings in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

She has been a prostitute for six years, since the day her mother made a deal with a local pimp.

“One day an old woman came to our house,” Saida recalled. “She talked to my mother, and then took me to a house. A man almost 30 years old was waiting for me. He attacked me right away. It was horrible. I knew nothing; I felt only pain.”

According to Saida, she was left alone with the man for half a day before being brought home.

She told her mother what had happened, but she got no response.

“I now know she must have agreed because she was desperate,” said Saida. “I was in pain for a week. The old woman came again ten days later and took me back to that house. After that I started going on my own and getting money from rich people.”

Saida is now quite familiar with the world of prostitution, and accepts it as her lot in life.

“Having sex with men of any age or appearance is quite normal for me,” she said. “I don’t care who I spend the night with as long as I make a little money.”

She said she sometimes services five customers in one night, and has some regular clients, although she prefers to have a steady stream of new ones.

“My regular clients pay me less,” she explained. “The new ones give me a lot of money.”

Saida said that she charges from 1,000 to 2,500 afghani per night, between 20 and 50 US dollars.

“All men are the same to me,” she said. “At first I really hated fat men, or those whose bodies smelled bad, but now I don’t care.

She broadens her client base through referrals, and does not have a madam or pimp.

“Men give my telephone number to their friends, and that way I find new customers,” she said.

Afghanistan is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and involuntary servitude.
US State Department Trafficking Report, June 12, 2007

Afghanistan’s sex industry is booming, according to both private and official sources. Statistics are scattered, and few solid figures exist. But since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, prostitution has become, if not more widespread, at least more open.

A police official in the northern province of Jowzjan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that according to official figures, 2,000 families in his province alone had resorted to prostitution over the past 10 years. The true figure is likely much higher.

“The main factor is the lack of employment opportunities,” he said.

In many cases, prostitution becomes a hereditary trade, passed on from mother to daughter.

The Taliban strictly controlled sexual activity, meting out harsh punishments for extra-marital relations and adultery. Married women who had sex outside marriage were stoned to death; others were publicly flogged.

Sex outside marriage remains illegal in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and the prisons are full of women who have been convicted of “fornication”, a charge that carries a penalty of from five to 15 years in jail.

But this has not stopped women like Dilbar (not her real name), a 40-year-old madam who keeps a brothel in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Dilbar is a professional. She worked as a prostitute for many years, and has passed the trade on to her daughter, who helps her run the brothel. She no longer takes on clients herself.

“I am too old now,” she laughed. “I have children. But I help other girls to become prostitutes. I provide the means to make young men happy for a short time.”

Her customers call her “Khala” - “Auntie” - as a sign of respect.

Dilbar has ten girls who operate out of her brothel as well as making house calls on request. She requires a constant supply of new blood for her clientele, who are always seeking fresher delights.

“When I find a new girl I ask her to bring a friend,” she explained. “That way I get more and more girls. So I can get rid of those who become too old, or who get used up.”

Since prostitution is illegal, Dilbar has to be careful. She does not often allow customers to spend the night, to avoid attracting her neighbours’ attention.

“Most customers just spend a few hours during the day,” she said. She charges from 1,000 to 2,000 afghani, depending on the girl. “The younger, fresher ones get more,” she explained. She shares the proceeds with the girls, but did not divulge her percentage.

The business end of things has been made much easier by the mobile phone. Dilbar moves house frequently so as to avoid detection. With a mobile phone, she can alert her regular customers to her new location.

“Before we had mobile phones, I had to spend a longer period in each house,” she said. “Then when I moved, I would have to go personally to my customers to tell them where we were. These mobile phones are a great help.”

The capital Kabul, too, has its bordellos. In addition to a number of Chinese “restaurants”, which employ imported prostitutes and cater to an international clientele, the city sports several venues such as the house run by Kaka Faiz (again, not his real name).

The charges are steeper in the capital, with Kaka Faiz charging up to 100 dollars for a night with one of his girls.

“We address the needs of young men,” he said. “They exist, so we exist.”

Most of Faiz’s girls are under 25, and he has a well-heeled clientele.

“The men who come to my house work in NGOs [non-government organisations], and some of the city’s wealthiest people also come,” he boasted. “I have placed this entire house at their service, and they can feel quite safe and secure.”

Azita, 19, is one of Faiz’s girls.

“I do not want to do this,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “But I only have eight years of schooling. I wanted to become a doctor, but I couldn’t complete my studies. This is the only job open to me.”

While prostitution existed both before and during the Taliban, Afghan women's rights groups believe the number of sex workers in the country is increasing at a greater rate than before because the country has reached an unprecedented level of economic hardship and lawlessness.
South China Morning Post, April 9, 2006

While unhappy with her fate, she does not blame Faiz, who offered her assistance when she needed it.

“I did not know any boys, and they did not know me or my address,” she explained. “So I meet them in Faiz’s house. He is a good man. Even when there were no customers, he gave me some money. Otherwise, our family of six would die of hunger.”

Organised brothels may offer the girls some protection from the tougher customers.

Latifa, 25, who operates independently, complains that many of her clients are swindlers who refuse to pay after sex.

“Some men try to make us smoke or drink,” she said. “One night two men invited me to their house and said they would pay me 2,000 afghani. They offered me a drink, but I said no. Then they demanded that I have anal sex with them. When I refused they threw me out of the house at midnight, without paying me anything.”

But it’s not all bad, she added.

“There are a few good men who honour their agreement and pay in advance,” she said.

Street prostitutes have a difficult time.

Roya (not her real name), is 25 and comes from Pul-e-Khumri, but now lives in Mazar-e-Sharif, about two hours away.

She is a full-time beggar, and also performs sexual services for money. She goes into shops and offers to have sex with the owner for the equivalent of four dollars.

“Otherwise I have to stand out on a busy street for hours to make one afghani,” she complained. “I have been begging since I was a child. But when I got to be an adolescent, men would humiliate me and try to touch me. So I started having sex for money.”

Taxi drivers are a rich source of information on prostitution, since they interact with so many different types of people.

“I know an old man who came from a foreign country,” said a cabbie in Mazar-e-Sharif. “He didn’t know the city so he asked me for help. He likes young girls. So I took him to a few places. Now we both go once a week. He meets one young girl, and I get another one. He pays for us both, and then he gives me six times the usual taxi fare.”

One young man in Balkh province was unapologetic about visiting prostitutes.

“It’s entertainment - what else are we supposed to do?” he said. “I have relations with a lot of girls; they come to my shop and I pay them. It is good for both sides – I am not married, and they make money.”

The market was completely unregulated, he added.

“We pay from 100 to 5,000 afghani [two to 100 dollars] depending on age and beauty,” he said. “Half the population is involved in this type of activity.”

With so much underground sexual activity, the risk of disease is high.

Doctor Khalid, who runs the AIDS Public Awareness section of a Mazar-e-Sharif clinic, said the Afghan public is woefully ignorant of the risks of HIV infection.

“There are many factors in the transmission of [HIV/] AIDS,” he said. “But the main one is illegal and unhealthy sexual relations.”

When a prostitute has sex with many clients, there is scope for passing on not only the HIV virus which causes AIDS, but also other diseases such as syphilis and certain strains of hepatitis, the doctor explained.

“The campaign for public awareness is not satisfactory,” he complained. “Most people are not aware of the dangers.”

Exact figures are unreliable, but the Afghan health ministry listed 75 recorded cases of HIV in August 2007, representing a fourfold increase in just six months. The actual figure is likely to be exponentially higher.

If Dilbar’s views are any indication, Doctor Khaled is right to be worried.

“AIDS, shmaids!” laughed the brothel owner. “AIDS doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. I’ve never heard of anyone getting infected with AIDS. Here a girl will have sex with three men in a day without using a condom. These condoms are some kind of foreign thing. Myself, I’ve never used one.”

A police official in the northern province of Jowzjan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that according to official figures, 2,000 families in his province alone had resorted to prostitution over the past 10 years. The true figure is likely much higher.
IWPR, Jan.16, 2008

The police say they are clamping down on prostitution.

“We are quite serious about eliminating these centres of prostitution,” said General Sardar Mohammad Sultani, the police chief in Balkh province, of which Mazar-e-Sharif is the main town. “Now no one dares to do this openly. If there are such centres, they are hidden, and those who use them are so skilled that the police do not know they are there.”

But one young man who had been arrested for having had unlawful sexual relations told IWPR that many prostitutes operate in collusion with the police.

“I once had an appointment with a girl at her house,” he said. “Ten minutes after I got there, the police showed up and took me to jail.”

He explained that this happened because he had not yet figured out how the system worked.

“Last year, I was taking a woman home. She was wearing a burqa, but the police stopped us and said they recognised her as a prostitute. She had a good laugh with the police, who demanded money. I gave them 100 dollars and they let me go.”

Police chief Sultani denies that his men are complicit in prostitution.

“If anyone has any evidence, they should come to us,” he said. “If we do not take action, then people can hold us responsible.”

Dilbar, the wily madam, just laughed when asked about police corruption.

“We have always existed, under each and every government. So have the police,” she said. “Somehow we find a way to do our job and keep everyone happy.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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