W.When Zainab met her first client nearly two years ago, she was drunk, drugged, and passed out when he started raping her. She had never touched alcohol before but was told she was passed out. Startled, she reluctantly agreed.
The man was gone when the then 18-year-old woke up; her body ached, her thoughts filled with regret.
She says she now has no choice but to keep selling sex.
Sex work is illegal in Afghanistan. But as the war – and the widespread poverty that goes with it – continues, the number of women and men who see trade as their last option continues to grow. Although the Criminal Code does not provide a punishment for sex work, they risk jail time if caught.
“Poverty and illiteracy are the main drivers of prostitution,” says a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Women. “Especially among younger women, there is a lack of understanding of sexual knowledge. They are often fooled into business. “
Several nonprofits across Afghanistan confirmed the number has risen sharply and estimated that “hundreds” worked in the capital, Kabul. Men and women who sell sex operate in friends’ homes, in cafes and beauty salons. Fearing threats and retaliation, the respondents asked the Guardian not to reveal any names.
With the burden of looking after her five younger siblings after her father’s death, Zainab dropped out of school to work full-time as a housekeeper.
When her younger brother fell ill and needed hospital treatment and medication, she asked for an advance on her salary. But her employer told her, “I have no money, but I can bring you a man. You are a virgin, you will be able to get a lot of money. “
It was then that Zainab found out about the underground brothel that her employer was running. Zainab, now 20, continues to see between two and three men each week, receiving 2,000 afghanis (£ 18) from each.
“I was 13 years old when my father died. My mother had been sick for a long time, and as the oldest I had to take responsibility for my family. I started working as a housekeeper, but I never had enough money, ”says Zainab.
They last 10 minutes, sometimes 20 minutes. Some use condoms, but not all do Zainab, a sex worker
Wrapped in a black abaya cloak, Zainab agreed to an interview on one condition: no photos, no last names, no reference to the neighborhood where she worked. She sits with folded hands as she describes her work, only her eyes are bared.
“Most men are young, between 25 and 30 years old, and most of them are married. You know my employer and call her to make an appointment. Some men ask to choose from multiple girls, ”she says, constantly reminding me how much she hates what she does.
“They last 10 minutes, sometimes 20 minutes. Some use condoms, but not all, ”she says, explaining that her employer regularly uses contraceptive injections to avoid pregnancy, but that she is worried about illnesses. “Every time I’m alone in a room with a man, I’m scared.” Neither friends nor family know how they get their income. Zainab tells them that she still works as a housekeeper.
Heather Barr, co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said she first met women selling sex in Afghanistan in 2012 and found that many were forced to do so or saw it as their only way to survive.
“It shows the Afghan government’s major failures to protect women’s rights,” she says. “Women should never be so cut off from help that they could be abused by others in this way without their escape, and the total lack of a financial safety net and other government assistance creates a situation in which a woman deserves it can. “only way to survive.”
Zainab says she saw other women at her employer’s home, but she never spoke to them, too ashamed to admit what she’s doing. She knows that there are also many male sex workers in Kabul, but says she has not met any of them.
Javeed (not his real name), a 28-year-old husband and father of three, explains that he leads a double life with his wife and children unaware of his other occupation.
“I realized that a lot of men wanted to sleep with me and I needed money. I started going home with people and developed an interest. Some are now my customers and pay me; others are friends with whom I choose to have sex, ”he says.
The money is barely enough to feed his children and provide school supplies. Unlike Zainab, he claims that his customers never use condoms.
Barr says, “The blanket criminalization of Zina [the Islamic term for illicit sexual relations] pushes sex work underground and cuts sex workers off from opportunities to at least protect themselves and make their working conditions safer. “
Both Javeed and Zainab say they see no way out of their current situation.
“I know it’s dangerous. I’m scared of leading this double life, ”says Zainab. “But I don’t see how else I should support my younger siblings. I sacrifice myself for my family. “