War turned her into a whore — there is no way back

Saturday, 15 December, 2001, 12:41

By BBC's Branwen Jeffreys in Peshawar

It's not easy finding a prostitute during Ramadan. During the holy
month they lie low, as their customers stay away.

Even during the rest of the year in Peshawar the oldest profession
operates with discretion bordering on invisibility.

But I had been told in the refugee camps around the city that some
destitute women coming over the border from Afghanistan had turned to
selling sex to support their children. It's not hard to see why.

If I had education there's no way I'd do this work

The war has left many women widowed and without other immediate family.
Village women, who only know how to farm, find themselves alone in one
of the huge refugee camps or in a city.

In Peshawar at sunset each day crowds of women gather on the pavements
outside bakeries, begging for bread at the breaking of the Ramadan
fast.

Arian McGee works for a charity that carries out education work on Aids
and other sexually-transmitted diseases in this intensely conservative
society. That means not just going into schools, but trying to reach
those most at risk - the sex workers of Peshawar and the other frontier
towns.

Adrian and his team had become familiar with the public pick-up points
- bus stops, parks and even hospital waiting rooms. In the last two
years, he told me, they had seen a steady and visible increase in the
number of Afghan women working as prostitutes.

"It's a hidden problem and I can't put numbers on it, but it's
happening," he said. "Some of these women have no other option, they've
tried to get other work, but it's so difficult for women, some turn to
prostitution."

Adrian sent us with one of his colleagues, an outreach worker recruited
from a male dance troupe - they often worked alongside female
prostitutes, and he could take us to a brothel.

Slight, lithe and incredibly camp, he draped one leg over the other in
the front seat of the car.

Shops were closing in the dusk. Formidable looking men in turbans
hurried home by cycle, rickshaw or horse drawn cart.

Inside the cart the former dancer broke in a high voice into a famous
Pashtun love song, Bibi Shirini, giving it the full song and dance
routine - swaying and making eyes at our young Pakistani driver, who
was by turns embarrassed and pleased.

We drove along progressively narrower and shabbier streets until he
told us to stop. We were hurried into a large house, and sat on a bed
to wait.

A young prostitute combed out her hair, watching us in the mirror. Five
or six girls - none older than their mid twenties - were ushered in to
meet us - lining up to look at the two European women sitting in the
bedroom of a Peshawar brothel.

Friendly, shy and curious they were all Pakistani - but knew of Afghan
women. A few minutes of shrugging and smiling followed the inevitable
question - how could we meet them? They said they would ask.

So late one evening I found myself sitting on the floor besides two
Afghan women - both refugees. The younger - just 22 - had arrived a
couple of months earlier from Afghanistan - from a village north of
Kabul. She pulled nervously at her clothes, her head modestly covered
with a white voile shawl as she told me her husband and parents had
been killed in the war.

She had not long been married, a village girl with no education - now,
so ashamed she wouldn't tell me her name. Left alone to look after
three young children, two brothers and a sister, she had walked with
them into Pakistan to Peshawar.

"If I had education there's no way I'd do this work," she said softly.
"I wish something would come out of the blue to take us away from this
life. We are forced to do this; so are other women. For the children
I've destroyed my life."

The price for her shame is thousands of rupees. A pretty young woman
like this can earn more than a $150 a month, a fortune compared to any
other work. But some older women are reduced to selling sex for less
than two dollars.

And as prostitutes lose their novelty value many are compelled to move
from town to town in search of new clients, trying to keep their price
high.

So many of the refugees you meet in Pakistan talk with real longing of
going home to Afghanistan. But this time I didn't need to ask.

For this young women and others like her there is no way back. Once a
respectable girl, now a prostitute, she won't be able to return to her
village.

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