Prostitution in Afghanistan
Prostitution in Afghanistan is illegal, with punishments ranging from 5 to 15 years imprisonment. The country is deeply religious and one of the most conservative countries in the world, where sex outside marriage is against the law. Despite the restrictions prostitution activities are reported to be thriving in the capital Kabul as well as in the Mazar-e-Sharif area in the north of the country. Mazar-e-Sharif has become unofficial capital of prostitution in Afghanistan. So much so that 'going to Mazar' has become a byword for Afghan men looking to pay for sex. Females for sale markets have also sprung up in eastern Afghanistan in recent years, where lawlessness has led to many petty crimes.
A large number of women from mainly China, Iran, Pakistan, Philippines, Tajikistan, and Uganda and other countries are imported for prostitution into Afghanistan. According to the Afghan Interior Ministry's department of sexual crimes, about 2 to 3 prostitution arrests were made each week in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008.
Under the former Taliban regime, prostitution existed clandestinely in Kabul, despite being outlawed due to the government following a very strict interpretation of the Islamic Sharia law. Melissa Ditmore reports in Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work that during their rule the traffic in women for prostitution thrived. Prostitutes mostly worked from their houses termed as Qalas and in Kabul there were 25 to 30 hidden brothels.
Legality and consequences
The practice of prostitution in Afghanistan is illegal, with punishments ranging from 5 to 15 years imprisonment and 80 lashes if unmarried. Married prostitutes are considered adulterers under the Afghan penal code and subject to execution. Prostitution was even more strictly prohibited under the rule of the Taliban, with those thought of having extramarital sex risking extrajudicial killing by cultural fundamentalists and Islamists.
- In July 2008, two Afghan women were accused of running a secret prostitution service and working for the police and killed by the Taliban in the Ghazni Province, although the local authorities as well as the American military in the area claimed the women were innocent.
- Two Afghan women accused of prostitution were shot dead in July 2010.
Prostitution in the country is mostly driven by poverty and displacement. Prohibition for women to work under Taliban rule meant some street children were forced into the trade in order to make a living. According to the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, females from Iran, Tajikistan, China, and possibly Uganda and other places are forced into prostitution in Afghanistan.
Women from Tajikistan are believed to be trafficked through Afghanistan to other countries for prostitution. Trafficked Iranian women transit Afghanistan en route to Pakistan. Afghan women as well as boys and girls among recently returned refugees from neighboring countries were reported to be forced into prostitution, a number of children were also reported being sold into it by their family.
The number of prostitutes in Afghanistan is small. A 2007 University of Manitoba report suggests that there may be about 900 female prostitutes in Kabul, which is a city with a population of over 3 million. UNAIDS estimated there were 12,500 prostitutes in the country in 2016. About two to three prostitution arrests were made between 2007 and 2008 each week in Afghanistan, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry's department of sexual crimes.
According to Afghan traditions, the shame of prostitution is so intense that sometimes those involved in such activities are assassinated by the many religious extremists found throughout the country or in some cases by family members.
"Prostitution is in every country that has poverty, and it exists in Afghanistan. But society has black glasses and ignores these problems. Tradition is honor, and if we talk about these taboos, then we break tradition."— Orzala Ashraf, women's rights activist
"In our culture, it is very, very bad."— Soraya Sobhrang, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commissioner for women's affairs
Brothels, sometimes run by foreigners, sometimes with links to larger criminal networks, manage to exist in several cities of the country by paying bribes to police officers who come to raid them. There are reports of a couple of brothels in northern Afghanistan, in and around the Mazar-i-Sharif area of Balkh Province.
The capital Kabul saw an extraordinary number of Chinese brothels ("Chinese restaurants") opened in the four years following the fall of the Taliban regime. Four years later a series of police raids reduced the brothels to 3 which caters, according to Reuters, to a mainly high-income international clientele as Afghan aren't generally accepted in or, according to USA Today, to mostly Afghan men.
"There are 200 of us here in Kabul, we don't go out much. It's not safe. I've been here for two years, the money is okay. We stay indoors. We don't go out."— A female bartender from northern China, 2006
Nikah mut'ah is a fixed-term marriage practiced mainly in Shia Islam, but is rejected by the majority Sunni Muslims (see misyar marriage, nikah urfi, nikah halala). There are also some recent reports about Mut'ah (Fegha in Persian language) beginning to be practiced in Mazar-i-Sharif.
"Nobody would give me their daughters to marry because I didn't have family or money. I started doing 'short marriages' in Iran. When I came back to Mazar-i-Sharif, I continued."— Payenda Mohammad, a mechanic in Mazari-i-Sharif, 2006.
Like in many other Islamic countries, it is a major taboo in Afghan culture for women to dance in front of men. Males and females are segregated during weddings and other parties. As a form of adult entertainment, young males dress as females and dance in front of men to make money. "Bacha bereesh" (meaning "boys without beards" in Persian language) occasionally dance to entertain men at certain parties, especially in the north parts of Afghanistan. Powerful patrons sometimes sexually exploit the dancers.
The "Curse of 39"
The 'Curse of 39' refers to the belief in some parts of Afghanistan that the number 39 is cursed or a badge of shame as it is purportedly linked with prostitution.
The cause of the number's undesirability is unclear, but it has widely been claimed to have been associated with a pimp, allegedly living in the western city of Herat, who was nicknamed "39" after the registration plate of his expensive car and the number of his apartment. The number is said to translate into morda-gow, literally meaning "dead cow" but a well-known slang term for a pimp. Others have blamed corrupt police officials for spreading the rumour in order to charge between $200–$500 to change a "39" plate.
Vehicle registration plates incorporating the number are seen as so undesirable that vehicles and apartments bearing the numerals are said to be virtually unsellable in the capital, Kabul. The drivers of such vehicles have reported receiving abuse and derision from pedestrians and other drivers, and some have had their registration plates altered to disguise the numbers. One such driver, Zalmay Ahmadi, told The Guardian: "When I drive around all the other cars flash their lights, beep their horns and people point at me. All my classmates now call me Colonel 39."
Human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Afghanistan, and traffickers exploit victims from Afghanistan abroad. Internal trafficking is more prevalent than transnational trafficking. Some Afghan families knowingly sell their children into sex trafficking, including for bacha bazi. There are reports that some law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges accept bribes from or use their relationships with perpetrators of bacha bazi to allow them to escape punishment. Afghan returnees from Pakistan and Iran and internally displaced Afghans are vulnerable to exploitation in sex trafficking.
There are also women and girls markets in eastern Afghanistan, around the regions of Nangarhar and Paktia, where the females are sold openly. Some of the victims are said to be imported into Pakistan where the tradition started from.
Men, women, and children in Afghanistan often pay intermediaries to assist them in finding employment, primarily in Iran, Pakistan, India, Europe, or North America; some of these intermediaries force Afghans into prostitution. Afghan women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and India. Some Afghan boys are subjected to sex trafficking in Greece after paying high fees to be smuggled into the country. Afghan traffickers subjected Afghan boys to bacha bazi in Germany, Hungary, Macedonia, and Serbia. Traffickers have subjected women and girls from China, Iran, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan to sex trafficking in Afghanistan.
In 2019, the United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons downgraded Afghanistan to a 'Tier 2 watchlist' country.
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Women and girls from Iran, Tajikistan, and possibly Uganda and China are forced into prostitution in Afghanistan. Some international security contractors may have been involved in the sex trafficking of these women. Brothels and prostitution rings are sometimes run by foreigners, sometimes with links to larger criminal networks. Tajik women are also believed to be trafficked through Afghanistan to other countries for prostitution. Trafficked Iranian women transit Afghanistan en route to Pakistan.
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