Uzbek Prostitutes Look to New Markets
When Israel deported Gulnora for prostitution last month she came home to Samarkand by plane. Her journey to get there one year earlier was rather more complicated.
First Gulnora - not her real name - was taken by a pimp from Tashkent to Moscow, and then flown to Egypt. She and five others were handed over to a Bedouin, who took them on a long and dangerous ride to Israel by camel.
“Our journey lasted nine days, and we were lucky we didn’t encounter Israeli border troops,” she said, adding that some women making the same journey have been killed by guards while others have been raped by their Bedouin guides.
The United Arab Emirates, where Uzbeks make up the largest group of foreign prostitutes, used to be the destination of choice for women like Gulnora. Some travel agencies in Tashkent even offer a visa service to speed up the process.
But competition there is fierce, and Gulnora is among a growing number of prostitutes employed by pimps looking to expand into new markets like Israel, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Bahrain and Iran.
South Korea - which has strong trade links with Uzbekistan - is another popular destination, though customers there are mainly Uzbek men working away from home so the women say the earnings are not as good.
But the authorities in some of these countries are now cracking down.
According to a Thai women’s group, 228 Uzbek women were arrested and deported from Thailand last year. In Israel, which is almost impossible to enter legally, more than 250 have been sent home in the past year alone.
Gulnora - who saw up to 15 clients a day and earned enough in six months to pay back the 5,000 US dollars she owed her pimp - arrived back in Uzbekistan with just 10 dollars in her pocket. That money was taken by customs officers at Tashkent airport.
Nodyra Karimova, head of a non-government group in Uzbekistan which works to end the trafficking of women and which helped bring Gulnora home, said more people are turning to prostitution as the economic crisis in the country worsens.
To escape poverty, there are even some mothers who offer their daughters to pimps and ask for them to be sent abroad to work as prostitutes. An Uzbek women’s centre told of two cases where madams took their own underage children to work in brothels.
Other women, however, are tricked into going abroad by promises of jobs as cleaners or cooks. Their passports are confiscated by the pimps and if they refuse to work they may be beaten up. When the debt for their journey overseas is settled, the women are often sold on to another pimp.
After years of ignoring the problem, Uzbekistan last year signed an international convention on sexual exploitation and trafficking of women.
Five madams have been charged, but later released under President Islam Karimov’s annual amnesty. Because of the amnesty, the pimp of an underage orphan who was raped, beaten and had her face burned with cigarettes was allowed out of jail. The girl’s aunt, who sold her for 50 dollars, also went free.
“This happens every year,” said Maya Kurbanova, a legal expert from an Uzbek women’s centre. “Ninety per cent of the pimps are women, and their husbands and brothers help them from abroad or home. Because it is not punished, the traffic of women in Uzbekistan continues to flourish.”
Despite the tragic stories, some state officials are unsympathetic to the plight of Uzbek prostitutes.
The head of the women’s affairs committee at the Samarkand governor’s office, Farogat Shakirova, blames the women themselves for their problems, and denies the growth of prostitution among Uzbek women is linked to the country’s economic woes.
“They simply don’t want to work, so they look for easy ways to earn a lot of money” said Shakirova. “They are simply immoral women. When they are abroad, why don’t they work as cleaners in factories like other Uzbek people do? Even in the difficult [Second World] War years women starved, but kept their honour and dignity.”
Samarkand human rights activist Salima Kadyrova said the authorities won’t acknowledge the problem because they themselves are to blame for Uzbekistan’s current crisis.
“The state must not create conditions that allow prostitution to develop on a massive scale,” she said. “What sort of monstrous society are we creating?”
Artur Samari is an IWPR contributor in Samarkand.