Tajikistan moves to curb prostitution

The police ministry wants to criminalise the sex industry, while experts insist the root cause is poverty.

March 7, 2008

Dushanbe - As the Tajik interior ministry announces tougher penalties for prostitution, analysts say the local sex industry is a product of poverty and social dislocation and will not be easy to eradicate .

In late January, Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Salihov said his staff were drafting a special bill that would soon be sent to parliament.

Sex workers currently face relatively mild penalties under "administrative" or civil law, which rarely go beyond police warnings and rebukes.

The minister said this approach had failed to solve the problem. "We must make those engaged in prostitution answerable under criminal law," he said.

According to official figures, there are at least 500 women working as prostitutes in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

It is unclear whether the number of sex workers is growing, but observers agree that these days, the capital's prostitutes are more open about their activities than before.

Lieutenant-Colonel Khudonazar Asozoda, head of information at the Interior Ministry, told IWPR that a police sweep conducted in December netted more than 150 working women aged 14 to 45. Twenty-five of them were minors.

Some offered sexual services in bars, restaurants, nightclubs and saunas; others were streetwalkers.

"Medical examinations revealed 50 of these girls had venereal diseases," said Lt-Col Asozoda, adding that most cases involved syphilis, followed by gonorrhea and other diseases.

Rahim Boboev, a police captain in Dushanbe's Sino-1 district, believes criminalising prostitution may deter at least some women from pursuing this kind of work.

But while police and government officials appear to be putting their faith in harsher laws, sociologists interviewed by IWPR cast doubt over whether these measures were the right way to address the problem.

They listed other factors, including poverty, social change and lack of education as key contributory factors in the sex industry.

Umeda's story is typical of those of many women trying to cope with the severe economic hardship that has dogged Tajikistan since independence in 1991.

She told IWPR she was forced into marriage at the age of 15, before she had finished secondary school. Only six months later, her husband left for Russia in search of a job - and she never heard from him again.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Tajiks have gone off to Russia annually in search of seasonal work as manual labourers, which pays far more than they could earn at home.

Umeda waited for him for two years, but when her husband's parents decided he must be dead, they sent her back to live with her parents.

By then, her three older sisters and their children were also living with the parents. Their husbands, too, had failed to return from Russia.

The entire family of 15 survived on the earnings sent home by Umeda's brother, who was also working in Russia.

Then disaster struck. "To our misfortune, skinheads killed our brother last year," said Umeda. "His body was sent back from Russia."

Umeda then began sliding towards prostitution after first taking up with a man who dropped her after he found "another silly girl", in her words. "Then I dated his friend for a while, and after that things began to take off," she said.

She says she has no option but to carry on working as a prostitute.

"Find me a job that will feed 15 people and I'll quit this profession," she said. "I'm tired of being raped every night."

At the other end of the income scale in the sex industry, some Tajiks have joined women from other parts of the former Soviet Union who go abroad to work as prostitutes. Some go willingly; others are duped by traffickers and held by force.

Lt-Col Qaromat Mirzoeva, a female officer with the prosecution service, recalled a case two years ago where the police in Dubai sent 45 women home to Tajikistan.

"They aren't ashamed of being part of the oldest profession and they just want to return to Dubai," said Mirzoeva. "I doubt that harsh laws introduced by the interior ministry will stop such girls."

Some experts believe the culture of sexual permissiveness beamed into people's homes via satellite television, films and the internet since the fall of the Soviet Union has played a part in changing attitudes in what remains mostly a traditional Muslim society.

"The sexual revolution reached our country later than in the West," complained a Dushanbe university lecturer, who did not want to be named. "It has led to a situation in which women and girls engage in prostitution unconcernedly and don't feel ashamed."

What is beyond doubt, though, is that the 1992-97 Tajik civil war and accompanying economic decline had a hugely disruptive effect on traditional values and social structures - and particularly on women's lives and prospects.

Gulchekhra Mirzoeva, who heads a women's group called Modar ("Mother"), said that in those turbulent years women often agreed to become second or third wives of nouveau-riche businessmen or paramilitary commanders.

Such second wives commonly left school early without getting an education or a trade, as they were expected to look after the home.

Polygamy, permitted by Islam but banned by Tajikistan's Soviet-derived secular laws, has reappeared since 1991, often as women seek financial security in uncertain times.

"Now their so-called husbands have left them, or they have gone off to Russia, or else they have no more money to feed their families," said Mirzoeva. "These women have now joined the ranks of the unemployed, the poor and the prostitutes."

Qurbongul Qosimova, who heads a local charity called Najoti Kudakon ("Save the Children"), says tightening up the laws on prostitution will not address the plight of vulnerable women.

She has noted a recent increase in the number of divorced young women in rural areas. They are former second or third wives, a category who can easily be divorced and turned out of the home since a polygamous marriage enjoys no legal status.

"It's fine if the woman has relatives and they're prepared to take her back," said Qosimova. "But some of them don't, and they may become streetwalkers. That's why prostitution is thriving."

In Qosimova's opinion, it is not prostitutes who should be punished, but the men who go to them.

She would like these clients to face hefty fines and to be named and shamed on television and in the newspapers.

Qosimova thinks jobs should created especially for women. "When there's a job, there is bread, and the need to sell oneself disappears," she said.

Meanwhile, some sex workers in the capital said they had no fear of stricter laws.

"Those who use our services usually hold senior positions or have lots of money, so of course they'll be able to come to an arrangement with law-enforcement officials," says Tahmina, originally from the south of the country and working as a prostitute in Dushanbe for the last six years.

Mohira, who works with Tahmina, was equally confident, saying the police had caught her several times but took no action as her clients simply bribed them to go away.

"The only thing is that our services then cost them a bit more," she explained.

Many women said if there were a crackdown on the streets, they would merely work more discreetly out of apartments controlled by pimps, who in Tajikistan are usually women. They added that these "mamas", as they are known, have good connections in the police force.


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