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Prostitution thriving in north Afghanistan

Poverty pushes women into world’s oldest profession

When 19-year-old Fatima returned to her home in northern Afghanistan after years as a refugee in Iran, she struggled desperately to earn a living.

She briefly found work with an NGO, before being let go, and then spent two months learning how to weave carpets, before the factory shut down and she was again out on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Determined to support her mother, two sisters and young brother, she turned to a profession that has long been practised the world over but remains deeply suppressed in conservative Afghanistan -- prostitution.

"I had no other way but prostitution," says the pretty teenager, dressed in tight blue jeans with a black veil pulled loosely over her head.

Sometimes charging $50 a time, her work is illegal and would bring shame on her family if discovered, but it provides a lifeline she otherwise could not have imagined.

And there is anecdotal evidence, supported by doctors concerned about the potential for the spread of HIV and AIDS, that more and more young women across northern regions of Afghanistan are turning to sex work to escape grinding poverty.

No other way

Nasrin, a stylish 24-year-old dressed in a white burqa but wearing fashionable jeans underneath, works as a prostitute in Kunduz, east of Mazar-i-Sharif.

She says she was urged by her mother to take up the work as there was no other way for the family to earn a living.

"My father died in the civil war, my mum was a widow and I did not know what she did for work," Nasrin explained. "Later I understood she was a prostitute. One day she encouraged me to have sex with a man who came to our house."

Nasrin said she was ashamed, but felt she had no choice. "I really wanted to be a good lady and live with my husband, but now everyone sees me as a prostitute," she said. "My life is spoiled," she sobbed.

Others are more satisfied with their work, even if they acknowledge it means a normal life is out of the question.

"I am happy with what I am doing," says Nazanin, 23, a long-time prostitute in Mazar-i-Sharif who charges $15 a time.

"On the other hand, I have had enough of this. I really want to live like the others do. But who will marry me?" she asked.

While Afghanistan's strict Islamic law forbids prostitution, there are signs the work is taking formal root, with brothels operating in some cities and pimps managing prostitutes. Bribes take care of unwanted police attention.

Easy access

For clients, paying for sex gives them easy access to women that they otherwise would not be able to meet or could only have contact with if they were married -- a costly exercise in itself.

"I have sex at least once a week with one of these prostitutes," said Zilgy, a 25-year-old visiting a brothel in Mazar-i-Sharif. "I am their regular customer now. I have their telephone numbers and invite them to many places."

Ahmad Jamshid, aged 27, says he has sex with prostitutes because he cannot afford a wife.

"I am a shopkeeper. If I want to marry a girl, I must have at least $20,000 to marry her. Having sex with a prostitute is the only way that can I meet my expectations," he said.

Women's rights workers are concerned about what they see as a rising tide in sex work but believe it will inevitably continue unless the government does something to tackle poverty.

Security chiefs and religious leaders are also keen to show that they are clamping down on the world's oldest profession, but they lay the blame squarely on the sex worker, not the customers.

"Prostitution is completely illegal in Islam," said Qari Aziz, a prayer leader in Mazar-i-Sharif. "Those practicing it must be punished very harshly so that they will never do it again."