Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazak Women Sold as Sex Slaves
When teenagers Lyuda and Sveta were offered work in Turkey, the promised salary of 400-450 US dollars per month was beyond their wildest dreams.
Unemployed and from poor families in the south of Kazakstan, 16-year-old Lyuda and 19-year-old Sveta hoped the jobs as saleswomen in Istanbul would give them the money for new clothes and other luxuries they couldn’t afford at home. “Here in Taraz we didn’t even try nice food very often,” said Lyuda. “But we’re young. We want to dress well and use make-up.”
Little did they know of the horror that awaited them in Turkey where, like increasing numbers of women from the southern regions of the country, they were sold as sex slaves, forced to work up to 18 hours a day as prostitutes. At least 15 women from Taraz and the village of Merke, on the border with Kyrgyzstan, are known to have been sent to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to work in the sex industry, and many more are suffering sexual exploitation in saunas and brothels at home.
Lyuda and Sveta’s ordeal began when a “recruiter” drove the girls to Manas airport in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. When they arrived in Istanbul they were met by woman called Leonova who took them to a hotel and disappeared with their passports – she claimed to register them to work.
They soon discovered they’d been sold to the owner of the hotel for 2,300 dollars, and he quickly put them to work as prostitutes. “The hotel owner said he had bought me … and now I had to earn this money. We didn’t know what was waiting for us there,” Lyuda told IWPR. “We did not go there to become sex slaves. We were accompanied all the time by a big guy with a criminal appearance to stop us from running away.”
Though the girls saw clients for 16-18 hours each day, Leonova kept all the money they earned. To create the impression they were having a wonderful time abroad, she took Lyuda and Sveta to the beach where they were photographed in happy poses and the pictures sent to their unsuspecting families back in Kazakstan.
They escaped only when an American client took pity on them. He paid the hotel’s owner a large sum to let him see the girls outside the hotel then took them to the police. With the help of the International Organisation for Migration, which aids migrants in distress, they returned home after spending two weeks rehabilitating at a centre for rape victims in Ukraine.
Lyuda and Sveta were determined their abusers should not escape punishment and told the police about Leonova. On May 5 in Taraz, she was found guilty and jailed for four years, the first person in the legal history of the region to be sentenced under an article in the criminal code prohibiting the recruitment of women for sexual exploitation.
But their precedent-setting victory came at a high price. The girls endured a series of crude comments and questions from Leonova’s lawyer, which according to Asiya Kalieva, president of the NGO Bolashak and Sveta’s attorney, left her client on the verge of hysteria.
“In defending Leonova, he tried to accuse the victim, reminding her over and over again of the nature of her work. He cast doubt on the fact that she did not want to provide sexual services in Turkey, and said, ‘You should have thrown yourself out of the window if you didn’t want to do it’.”
As a result of such courtroom tactics, most involved in the sex industry are afraid, and ashamed, to face their exploiters in court - particularly in southern Kazakstan where Muslim influences are strong. Of the numerous women from Taraz and nearby towns who’ve been sent abroad to work as sex slaves, only four have complained to the police, and then only after speaking with psychologists from local NGOs.
“I don’t believe that the police can really help. Any pimp can buy them off easily,” explained one victim.
Indeed, Kazak police seem uninterested in investigating the growing problem with any information on trafficking cases coming exclusively from local groups that specialise in women’s rights.
Sergei Voronov, a representative of the International Organisation for Migration in the Jambyl province, cites two criminal cases against recruiters that have been suspended by the Taraz police. One - involving several dozen girls who were sent abroad and hit national newspaper headlines – collapsed when the recruiter disappeared.
Kazaks who monitor the sex trade point out that official indifference to the problem is all the more alarming given that sexual exploitation is also occurring much closer to home than in Turkey and the Middle East.
An analysis of calls made to a hotline set up by Bolashak found one third came from women desperate to escape sexual abuse at local saunas.
A 13-year-old girl from Taraz who said she was raped at a sauna is typical of the young and impoverished women who work in these places. “I argued with my parents and ran away from home, but had nowhere to go. A friend took me to a sauna where I was treated like an important guest for several days. But then they told me that they would not let me go until I paid with my body for the food and rest,” she said.
A 26-year-old prostitute told IWPR that lack of official action on the sexual abuse of women within the region is explained by the fact that many of the saunas where the crimes occur actually belong to leading city and regional officials. That includes the one where she works. “We bring enormous earnings to our bosses,” the woman said.
Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR correspondent in Taraz.
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