Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Child Prostitution Taboo

Underage prostitution is growing as more young people end up on the streets.
By Sona Meloyan

Few people in Armenia will admit that child prostitutes exist, let alone talk openly about it. That is making it harder to address the problem as increasing numbers of vulnerable young people end up living on the street.


"They never talk about child prostitution. It's a taboo subject," Mikael Danielian, head of the Armenian Helsinki Group, told IWPR.


"Neither the police nor the authorities - not even adult prostitutes - will say anything. They try to stifle the subject, shut it down. But that does not make it any less of a problem."


For Hasmik Markosian, 14, prostitution is all too real, and her only way of making a living.


"I've been doing quite well recently," she admitted. "I've bought some nice clothes. Sometimes they pay me as much as 30 US dollars a night."


Two years ago, when Hasmik was begging in a park in the capital Yerevan with her mother and younger brother and sister, three men forced her into their car and raped her.


Hasmik's mother chose not to go to the police, fearing that as a beggar, she would only get into more trouble. Instead, she actively encouraged her daughter to become a prostitute.


"I share an apartment with my friend, and try to avoid my mother. She's always asking for money," Hasmik said.


In the early 1990s, Yerevan residents were shocked to see children begging in the streets and metro passages. Many older people still think it is a disgrace.


"To hell with all those changes that have brought us to the position we're in!" complained Yerevan resident Mariam Muradian. "I've lived in this city for 67 years and I never thought our children would be reduced to begging, and in such a bedraggled state, too. Shame on their mothers!"


For Armenians, who traditionally have strong family values, it is particularly shocking to discover that some mothers are actually forcing their daughters onto the streets.


A year ago, 15-year-old Sofa Dnoyan was sold by her mother for 1,500 dollars in cash. Her buyer, a wealthy young man, took her to Spain and Acapulco with him. Seven months later, while they were in the Turkish town of Antalya, the man vanished. Left penniless, Sofa had to make her way back to Armenia by earning money as a prostitute.


While Sofa was away, neighbours found her mother dead at home. "So I have a flat now," Sofa said confidently. "I've broken up with my 'sponsor'. I'm not worried - I'll find another man, but not for long.


"I need the money. Next year, I'm going to buy myself a high school diploma, take a computer course and find an English tutor. I can still make it in life."


The number of children who live on the streets of Armenia has multiplied because of a rocketing divorce rate and falling standards of living.


Child vagrancy still ranks very low on the government's list of priorities and there are very few agencies dealing with the problem.


"It is extremely difficult to convince kids who live on the street to change their lives, but we are trying our best," said Armine Hovhanesian, who heads the Orran (Cradle) help centre for street children.


"They are not only inured to the ways of the street and its law of the jungle. They feel utterly despised by society," she said.


The Orran centre focuses particularly on children with psychological problems. "The ones with a police record have it toughest," said Hovhanesian. "We work with them individually, keeping in touch with their parents, if they have any. We help older kids to learn different trades."


The police by and large ignore street children begging or prostituting themselves, because they rarely have any cash worth extorting. Unless they get involved in violence or theft, they are left alone.


"We have enough problems to deal with," said an official at a reception centre for teenagers, who did not wish to give her name. "But our officers know every single teenage prostitute in town."


Meanwhile, neglect by the law enforcement authorities seems to be making the situation worse.


Ani Sarkisian first gave birth when she was 14. Out on the street and almost six months pregnant, she found out that clients preferred her to other prostitutes.


She abandoned her child at the maternity home, and then tried to get pregnant again as soon as possible since she had discovered that pregnancy pays. Now Ani's neighbours call her "the one with the belly".


"I make five or six times as much money when I'm pregnant," she said. She says she doesn't care what happens to the babies, and has not run into problems with the law. "Why should they care? I'm not the only one who leaves babies behind at the maternity ward."


"What do you mean 'why do I have children?'" she said. "It's the money."


Sona Meloyan is a journalist with Novoye Vremya newspaper in Yerevan