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Armenia: Women Driven into Prostitution

Many unemployed, unmarried women in Armenia have no other choice but to go into prostitution
By Armen Amirkhanian

Women of marriageable age in Armenia outnumber men by a third. Which is bad news for the fairer sex in a country that is still in the midst of painful social and economic transition. Facing unemployment, many of those unable to find a partner are going into prostitution.


The trend has developed into a mutual help network as women use their earnings to support families and friends. But now NGOs and health workers are concerned that the problem is getting out of hand with sexually transmitted diseases on the rise and more and more minors caught up in the trade. They believe the authorities are doing little to prevent prostitution, which is not illegal.


For many of the fifty per cent of single women of marriageable age in Armenia there is no option but to work the streets. "In the beginning, I would cry all day long, I felt shy for a long time but in the end I realised I was just one of many," Goar, 26, told IWPR.


She has been in the trade for five years now - seeing it as the only way she can save enough money to buy an apartment and put enough aside to raise a family. Even so, she supports her girlfriends, helping one out on the condition she doesn't enter the profession herself and continues her studies.


Goar also described how prostitutes pooled resources when one or other was unable to work, and allowed a newcomer into their circle because the girl had no other means of providing support for her youngster.


The dramatic increase in the number of prostitutes has its roots in the period of the late Eighties when the country was suffering from the devastating 1988 earthquake and the start of a socio-economic trauma triggered by the break-up of the Soviet Union.


A large number of women lost their jobs and many began drifting into the blossoming sex industry of the early Nineties. Society by then had been carved in two - those profiting from louche privatisation deals and the overhaul of state assets and those left jobless as a result of the sell-offs. A case of the poor satisfying the whims of the rich.


While some in Yerevan may earn fifty US dollars a client, prostitutes in the poorest regions are selling their services for little more than a nickel. It is this group that associations like the local NGO Hope and Assistance are greatly concerned about - especially as the numbers of minors joining their ranks is swelling.


Hope and Assistance head Enok Shatvorian sees the problem worsening as social conditions deteriorate and access to sex education becomes limited. He worries that the spread of disease in a country with a relatively small population could be devastating.


Shatvorian and others believe that the authorities are not treating the issue seriously.


The police are empowered to arrest anyone they suspect of knowingly passing on sexual diseases. Raids are carried out and prostitutes sent for compulsory tests. But it seems that more often than not they are just given a smack on the wrist and sent packing.


Some police officers also use prostitutes for blackmailing purposes and pay off girls to sleep with prominent businessmen and politicians. One officer told IWPR that they also used girls as informers to infiltrate the criminal underworld.


But the prostitutes are a resilient group. One sweep operation last month ended up with all women picked up having their heads shaved before being freed without charge. Some believed this was an attempt by the interior ministry to shame them off the streets. If that was the case, the plan failed, as the following day they were back working their turf wearing wigs.


Armen Amirkhanian is chairman of the Armenian Independent Journalists Association