Despair Drives Women to Drugs Trade

Central Asian drugs-traffickers are offering Kyrgyz women lucrative employment and an escape from grinding poverty

Despair Drives Women to Drugs Trade

Central Asian drugs-traffickers are offering Kyrgyz women lucrative employment and an escape from grinding poverty

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Salamat's story is familiar enough to the legions of drugs-couriers who travel the old Silk Road. When her husband died and she lost her job, the 30-year-old Kyrgyz accountant was faced by a desperate battle for survival. There were only two alternatives, she says, prostitution or running drugs.

"What can you do? There's no work," says Salamat. "My kids are so young. You can't go street-walking, can you? My neighbour took pity on me and took me on as her companion."

Now, Salamat braves the intense cold and the sweltering heat of the Central Asian mountain passes which form the so-called Great Drugs Route through the Fergana Valley (in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). She runs the gauntlet of border patrols and bandit gangs, armed with nothing but an ingenuous smile.

Salamat admits that she has become a willing pawn of the drugs barons. "Look at the mansions that have been built in Osh [in South Kyrgyzstan]!" she says. "One trip to Badakhshan [in the eastern part of neighbouring Tajikistan] and they can buy themselves an apartment or a car. Two more trips and they're millionaires. And what do we get? A few crumbs from the master's table!"

Unemployment, poverty and personal tragedy are usually blamed for driving Kyrgyz women into the welcoming arms of the drugs cartels. And, despite the strict rules of Muslim society, the phenomenon is on the rise. For example, of the 100 women brought to Osh high security prison last year, around a third had been charged with drugs-related offences.

The outlook for women in Kyrgyzstan is increasingly bleak. Unofficial statistics claim that 70% of the unemployed are women whilst female workers are the first to be laid off in the event of staff cutbacks. The Women's Congress of Kyrgyzstan says that women in the south of this republic are the lowest paid in the country.

The drug-runners become expendable links in a long-established chain. As a rule, they have no contact with the drugs barons themselves and are paid by middlemen. They are recruited because women walking the old Silk Road arouse less suspicion than men and because, if caught, they are more likely to get off with a lesser charge.

According to the Kyrgyz Criminal Code, couriers caught in possession of drugs with no intent to sell are liable to fines or prison sentences of up to three years. More serious offences can carry jail terms of three to 20 years but are generally not imposed on women.

The justice department for the Osh regional administration reports that eight out of 10 women convicted for drugs-related charges are given suspended sentences.

In contrast to most regional authorities, the drug-barons offer a measure of job security. Madina, 30, explains, "When they recruit you, they promise straight off that, if something happens, they'll support you. And they'll pass on messages over the wire to let you know that they're helping and your family isn't going hungry."

But most women are only too aware of the risks. Says Madina, "You don't live long in the camps. You blossom, then you wither!"

A spokesman for the Osh prosecutor's office highlights another horrifying aspect of this risky business. "The girls ruin themselves long before prison," he says. "A lot of them hide their valuable cargo in the most intimate places. As a result, the genitals of the most experienced drug-runners are sometimes so deformed that the prison doctors are horrified when they carry out examinations.

"But, as far as the women are concerned, the rewards are worth more than a future son or daughter..."

"What future, what children?!" sobs one of the girls. "I won't have anybody or anything. We're all finished!"

Makhamadzhan Khamidov is the correspondent in Osh for the Vecherny Bishkek newspaper.

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