In southern Kyrgyzstan, poverty and unemployment remain the main contributing factors to the region's growing commercial sex trade.
Faced with poverty and limited job skills, Alya is one of a many growing number of young women in the southern city of Osh, the country's second most populous, turning to prostitution as a means of sustaining herself. With more than four years' experience behind her, she has inured herself somewhat to the tragedies she has faced.
"I lost two of my children. My first child was born premature and didn't survive, while my ex-husband killed my second child, a three-year old son," she told IRIN in Osh.
Following those events, the 26-year-old sank into apathy and her life began a downward spiral that even she could not understand. "Life is not a [normal] life for me," she said. Although a high school graduate, she has no profession or skills to sustain her, while being an injecting drug user serves only to exacerbate her plight. And though she claims she has often thought of quitting the sex trade, her drug addiction has prevented her from doing so. "When I need a dose, I have to turn to prostitution again," she said.
NUMBERS OF SEX WORKERS RISING
As prostitution is illegal in the mountainous country of five million, there are no accurate statistics on the number of commercial sex workers in Osh Province. Natalia Shumskaya, the head of Podruga, a local NGO in the city, estimated the number to be around 1,000 in the city of 350,000.
"The number of sex workers in the city is on the rise," Mavliuda Joldosheva, Podruga's field works coordinator, said. In 1998, Podruga had contact with only 12 sex workers, while today it was working with some 250 women through one outreach activity, she added.
The NGO's team previously worked for the HIV/AIDS prevention project of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an international humanitarian aid organization based in Brussels, providing populations in danger with emergency medical assistance. After MSF completed its project, the local staff members of the project decided to continue its activities in the framework of a local NGO, thereby establishing Podruga in April 2001. Today, the group works mainly on the prevention of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among high-risk groups, particularly sex workers, youth and pregnant women.
LACK OF AWARENESS
Highlighting the magnitude of the problem, Shumskaya said a 19-year-old former sex worker, who was also an injecting drug user, had died earlier this month of hepatitis C. As most of the commercial sex workers had only a high school education, or perhaps not even that, many of them lacked the necessary awareness of the risk factors of STDs like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
"They don't know that hepatitis can be contracted via sexual intercourse. They are more aware of gonorrhea or syphilis and perceive it as a bigger problem, as their clients diagnosed with them can find and beat them," she pointed out.
POVERTY AND UNEMPLOYMENT
Socioeconomic difficulties during the transition period since the country gained its independence in 1991, remain one of the main causes of the problem. In Osh, salaries average a meager US $25 a month, with thousands unemployed. "When I talk to them [sex workers], they say, 'This is one child, here is another, I don't have a husband. How am I supposed to feed them as there is no job?," Shumskaya said.
She went on to warn against underestimating the psychological aspects of the issue, noting that whereas everyone faced difficulties, not all the women were resorting to prostitution.
"I think that there is a moral degradation of the society," she asserted, adding that parents often failed to inculcate their children with a strong value system as they themselves were not quite sure of what was good and what was not.
"Some of them [the girls] were facing [sexual] abuse, which is one of the main causes [of the phenomenon] as well," she noted, arguing that all these factors put together had led to the rising number of sex workers.
According to a recent survey conducted by the NGO, 65 percent of the sex workers had undergone secondary school education - or less, while 25 percent had attended vocational schools. Most of the workers' ages were found to be between 18 and 25, but some were even below 17. Most of them had their origins in rural areas, some having arrived in the city only recently, an aspect which indicated that things in the countryside were even worse than in the city, the survey report said.
SEX TRADE INCREASINGLY ORGANIZED
Yet another major concern is the degree of organization to which the sex trade in the city is becoming subject. Earlier estimates indicated that 80 percent of the women worked independently, with only 20 percent linked to procurers. Since then, however, the situation has been reversed, with about 80 percent of the women linked to procurers. That situation has since reversed, however, with about 80 percent of commercial sex workers now working under a procurer.
Meanwhile, some experts and publications in the Kyrgyz media have highlighted the issue of Uzbek women involved in commercial sex or being trafficked from the Uzbek part of the densely populated Fergana Valley.
Kudrat Karimov, a project manager at the International Organization for Migration office in Osh, cited an example of a young girl trafficked to Osh from the neighboring Uzbek province of Andizhan.
"A police officer contacted us, saying that a girl applied in writing stating that she had been trafficked from Andizhan," Karimov said. She was reportedly sold in Osh for some US $70, raped, deprived of her passport and forced into prostitution. Moreover, the traffickers had threatened to kidnap her 13-year-old sister and bring her in Osh under similar conditions if she did not comply with their wishes.
"That girl from Uzbekistan said that there were many such girls in Osh from [the Uzbek towns of] Margilan, Fergana and Andizhan that were trafficked," Karimov said. Although there was nothing to indicate their numbers, Karimov believed they were on the rise.
As for the efforts of the authorities to tackle the issue, Shumskaya mentioned the strong political support of Naken Kasiev, the provincial governor, a medical doctor by profession and a former minister of health, but noted that because government resources were scarce, external donor assistance was vital. "It is the international donors that support our projects and we are very grateful to them," Shumskaya said, explaining that the US Agency for International Development and the Soros Foundation were their main donors.
REHABILITATION OF SEX WORKERS
Still yet another issue was the social integration of those who had decided to quit the sex trade. Commercial sex and drug addiction were similar in that it was difficult to quit either to the exclusion of the other, Shumskaya emphasized, noting that the sex workers were at least earning some money to sustain themselves.
"If a girl comes up to us, first of all she needs some place to stay. Then she needs to get some skills to get by on, like [becoming] a hairdresser or a seamstress," she said, stressing the importance of training them to make business plans and apply for micro-credits. But such endeavors demand huge resources, resources which at present simply do not exist. Local residents believe that the ultimate solution to mitigating poverty in the region lies in job creation to lower unemployment.
IRIN, November 12, 2003