Uzbekistan: Sex Trade on the Rise
Many tourists viewing Samarkand's medieval architecture are getting more of a local "welcome" than they bargained for: propositions from the town's growing numbers of prostitutes.
Barno Samieva, head of the local women's council, told IWPR that the sex industry is growing rapidly, mainly as a result of the country's economic difficulties. A lack of job opportunities and rising prices are forcing Uzbek women to take desperate measures.
"By working as prostitutes, many women can feed their families and provide for their children. This is what I constantly hear from them during educational discussions," said Samieva. Many of the sex-workers tell her that they would give it up if they had any other way to earn money.
Salomat Davlatova from the Samarkand province committee of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan agrees that prostitution is on the rise. "Drive around the world famous Registan Square, and along the main roads at night. You will see hundreds of women and many of them are mothers."
As a divorcee with a child to support, 31-year-old Nazira had few options to earn a living. "Without higher education and specialised training, I couldn't find a good job. Then I met a woman who was a pimp, and she offered me prostitution work in the United Arab Emirates," she said.
Official figures released by the Samarkand provincial prosecutor's office record just 135 prostitutes and 88 pimps as of July 1 in this city of around 400,000, although civil rights activists claim that the real number is much higher.
For a public brought up in traditional Islamic morality, which places a high value on female modesty, the sight of Uzbek and Tajik women openly selling their bodies is a shocking one.
"It is a disgrace that our own Muslim women have become prostitutes. In the past, only Russian women did so. What's going on?" asked Professor Jamol Mirsaidov in Samarkand.
Leaving aside the morality of the industry, the growth in street sex workers has also led to a surge of venereal diseases in Samarkand and surrounding areas, according to doctors.
Salim Khalimov, the deputy head doctor of Samarkand's sexual health clinic, told IWPR that cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea for the first half of 2002 have already exceeded those of 2001 by ten per cent. More than 2660 cases of syphilis are currently registered, but it can be assumed that the actual number of sufferers is higher.
Government law-enforcement bodies and public organisations seeking to combat the growth of prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases have met with little success so far.
Psychologist Guliston Kholkeldieva blames this on comparatively light punishments facing those convicted of working in the sex trade. Prostitution currently earns a fine of up to nine US dollars, while pimps face penalties of up to 145 dollars or three years of correctional labour.
Davlatova strongly disagrees that harsher sentencing is the way to tackle the issue and argues that wider social issues - and the male customers - should be dealt with first.
"If some men don't like to see Muslim women becoming prostitutes, then they should do something to ensure they are given dignified and well-paid work, because a mother with starving children is ready to do anything," said Davlatova.
Young divorcee Gulnara M was relatively "lucky" when she turned to prostitution after years of unemployment and worry over the welfare of her young son.
When she finally brought herself to stand by the side of the road in the centre of the capital of Tashkent, the customer in the expensive car turned out to be an important public figure. He took a liking to Gulnara and now looks after her and her young son. She has not had to return to the streets.
However, very few Uzbek prostitutes have such "Pretty Woman" endings as they seek to earn a living the only way they feel they can.
Umida Khasanova and Gairatyjon Usmanov are independent journalists in Samarkand.