Shamed Women Enter Sex Trade in Azerbaijan
Bad decisions don’t come much worse than the one Gulnara made when she agreed to sleep with a neighbour who promised marriage in return for sex.
“When we'd had sex. he said that if I did this, I didn’t deserve a family. Naturally no one would have married me anymore, and when my parents found out, they simply threw me out of the house,” said Gulnara.
Just 19 at the time and with nowhere to live or enough money to survive, Gulnara took one of the few options open to women in her situation – prostitution.
“There is no work, and it’s quite expensive to rent an apartment. What else could I do?” she said. “Our mentality dictates that you either wait for the one person who will marry you, even if he never comes along; or else you simply become a prostitute.”
Extreme as this choice may seem to those outside the region, Gulnara isn’t exaggerating. In this conservative society, women who shame their families by having relationships outside marriage often end up in the sex trade for good.
Like Gulnara, some find their way to the so-called "brothel cafes" along the Baku-Sumgait highway. These are reportedly controlled from behind the scenes by local police officers, who instead of protecting these vulnerable women take a percentage of their earnings and use their services.
Sevda has worked as a prostitute at a cafe for several years. She said it is no secret in Baku that the cafes are run by the police, and that occasional raids to close them down are completely staged and fool no one.
“If we hand over part of the money earned on time, then we don’t have any problems,” said Sevda. “If there is no problem with the payment - the cut - then we can work in peace.”
Saida’s husband left six years ago to work in Russia. But he failed to send money as promised, and to support her child she took a job washing dishes at a cafe. When the owner asked her to sleep with him and she said no, he raped her. She says she was then forced into becoming a prostitute.
“He said that if I refused to serve clients, he would tell everyone who knew me about it. No one would have believed me,” said Saida.
She saw no point in reporting the assault to the police.
“The police to whom I give a cut of the money know full well how we earn it and how we've ended up here. And they sometimes rape prostitutes themselves, as they don’t consider us to be human beings. They feed their children on our money.”
Saida now sees four or five customers per day, each of whom pays about 10 US dollars. Half of that goes to the cafe owner, who shares the money with the police. “I don’t complain, because otherwise I couldn’t feed my child on the two dollars a month or so that the state pays,” she said.
Though official statistics aren’t kept, Azada Isazade from the Women’s Crisis Centre in Baku says prostitute numbers are high in Azerbaijan, particularly in the capital where most cafes and bars have at least two or three.
Analysts say sex trafficking is also becoming an increasing problem with 80 cases reported last year and 133 in the first nine months of 2005.
Interior ministry statistics show there were 125 people charged with keeping illegal brothels in the first nine months of 2005, compared with 68 last year.
Ehsan Zahidov from the interior ministry's press service says although the country has fewer prostitutes than Armenia and Georgia, he believes they are more exploited here than in the neighbouring republics.
“This is connected to the fact that… Azerbaijani society does not openly accept intimate relations outside marriage, and that the state does not provide its citizens with [adequate] social protection and simply forces them onto this path,” he said.
Women like 35-year-old Arzu, who has been a prostitute since she was raped at age 20, are particularly vulnerable. Uneducated and ill-informed about her rights, she was easy prey for the pimps in the brothel cafes.
“I don't get welfare from the state, and as a result I ended up on this path,” said Arzu. “But the law-enforcement bodies which could and should protect me simply use my defenceless situation for their own private gain.”
Shahla Abusattar is a correspondent for the Information Resource Centre of the Oil Industry of Azerbaijan in Baku.