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

Azeri Human Traffickers Target Vulnerable Women

By Nigar Musayeva

After an IWPR article about domestic violence (New Law to Tackle Domestic Assault in Azerbaijan), I attended a round- table discussion on the issue. It was a rare chance to discuss this taboo subject, and among the themes were the problems of those in the highest-risk group: prostitutes.

I knew that prostitution existed in the country, but it is never talked about, and I resolved to tackle the issue head on. The problem was that I had no idea how to go about it. How would I find prostitutes prepared to talk to me? There were experts, officials and activists who would talk all day, but how to find an actual sex worker?

My first plan was to visit a few of the bars known to be popular with prostitutes, and seek a subject for my article. I worried, however, that this would be dangerous for me, since these are not bars where unattached young women are encouraged to go. I also doubted that such a woman would talk to me for free.

Secondly, I thought I would enlist a male colleague to help, since they would be able to visit the bars closed to me. However, this didn’t work, perhaps understandably because being known to have spent time in the company of prostitute can ruin your reputation.

My third possibility was to seek a friend who could put me in touch with a prostitute. I appealed to a barman I know who has worked in bars and pubs all over Baku and who, it seemed likely, would be able to help. He promised to find a subject for my article, but nothing came of his search – perhaps he too was nervous of making enquiries into this taboo issue.

I then took a fourth tack of phoning the Women’s Crisis Centre, a non-governmental organisation that I quoted in the story. They were helpful with background information but would not put me in touch with any of the women they had helped, citing confidentiality.

Time was passing, and I was losing hope, when finally one of the friends I had appealed to for help told me he knew a woman who had once run a “massage parlour” – a place where the masseuses perform more intimate duties than the name suggests.

I nervously phoned the woman, unsure how she would welcome me, but was surprised to find her open and chatty and ready to talk about the sex industry. She even introduced me to a prostitute who had been trafficked, telling her that not only could I be trusted with her information but that my article might even help her and other women forced into selling themselves.

The papers and radio regularly warn young women about the risks of marrying unknown foreign men, but cases such as Aynur Mammadova’s show that young women do not take much notice. As Mammadova told me, her whole life fell apart when she was 16 and married an Iranian, who took her to Dubai and dumped her in a brothel.

The response of her father, who hit her and threw her out the house when she finally made it back home, is symbolic of that of the whole country. Azerbaijan seems unwilling to confront the horrors faced by these young women and instead treats them as if they themselves are to blame for their fate. In such an environment, the sex industry is flourishing.

To be honest, I think prostitution is one of those perennial issues that can never be solved, but I sincerely hope that the intervention of journalists like me can help women trapped as sex workers to start a new life.

Link to related article: Azeri Human Traffickers Target Vulnerable Women by Nigar Musayev, CRS Issue 553, 6 Aug 10.

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