Fri, Jun 20, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Afghan sex trade thrives despite punishment, denials

By Alisa Tang  /  AP , KABUL

The girl was 11 when she was molested by a man with no legs.

The man paid her US$5. And that was how she started selling sex.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s most conservative countries, yet its sex trade appears to be thriving. Sex is sold most obviously at brothels full of women from China who serve both Afghans and foreigners. Far more controversial are Afghan prostitutes, who stay underground in a society that pretends they don’t exist.

Customs meant to keep women “pure” have not stopped prostitution. Girls are expected to remain virgins until their wedding nights, so some prostitutes have only anal sex.

Police make two to three prostitution arrests each week, said Zia ul-Haq, the chief investigator in the Ministry of the Interior’s department of sexual crimes. They are often the casualties of nearly three decades of brutal war and a grinding poverty that forces most Afghans to live on less than US$1 a day.

“Prostitution is in every country that has poverty, and it exists in Afghanistan,” women’s rights activist Orzala Ashraf said. “But society has black glasses and ignores these problems.”

“Tradition is honor, and if we talk about these taboos, then we break tradition,” Ashraf said.

The girl is now 13, and her features have just sharpened into striking beauty. She speaks four languages — the local languages of Pashtu and Dari, the Urdu she picked up as a refugee in Pakistan and the English she learned in a US$2.40-a-month course she pays for herself in Kabul. She is the breadwinner in her family of 10.

She does not know what a condom is. She has not heard of AIDS.

The Associated Press learned her story in a dozen meetings over four months, as well as interviews with police and aid workers. For months she insisted she was a “good girl” — a virgin. But in March, she confessed to having anal sex with men for years, starting with the legless beggar.

She looked down as she spoke, her face and hands sooty from car exhaust. She tucked her hair repeatedly under her head scarf.

The girl grew up in Pakistan, where her family fled during a bloody civil war in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. She cleaned cars for money.

Five years ago, her family and a flood of other refugees returned to Afghanistan after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime. But her father could earn only US$40 a month doing various odd jobs.

So she sold chewing gum and newspapers and cleaned car windows in the muddy, potholed streets of Kabul. She made about US$3 a day.

That was where she met Uncle Lang, a nickname that literally means Uncle Legless.

Uncle Lang was a land mine victim. When the girl and a friend brought him tea and food, he forced himself upon them, police say.

“I didn’t know anything about sex,” she says. “But it happened.”

It’s hard to know how many other women in Afghanistan are prostitutes because of the extreme secrecy around the issue. A University of Manitoba report last September estimated there are about 900 female sex workers in Kabul.

A 2005 report by the German aid group Ora International drew data from 122 female sex workers, of whom less than 1 percent knew about AIDS. The youngest was 14.

Prostitutes in Afghanistan include scores of Chinese women serving Western customers who work for security firms, companies and aid groups in Afghanistan. Many of the women say they were tricked into the trade by middlemen who promised them respectable jobs, but General Ali Shah Paktiawal, head of Kabul’s criminal investigations, denies this, saying: “They come here of their own will.”

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