Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
School holidays are approaching in Kyrgyzstan, but few pupils here can look forward to trips abroad or a summer camp. The majority of Kyrgyz schoolchildren spend the holidays working, to earn some money for new uniforms, jeans and text-books. Most find jobs hawking newspapers, fruit, ice-cream, chewing gum and cigarettes, but in recent years growing numbers have been selling their bodies.
Three years ago, Elvira turned up in Bishkek to spend the summer with her father. She tried to earn some money selling ice cream. Pretty and grown-up looking, she did well, some days making as much as a dollar.
But she soon drew the attention of the Bishkek pimps, attractive older girls who laughed at her and told her she could earn ten times as much. Elvira has never returned to school - and why should she, when without the help of arithmetic and algebra she has already been supporting her grandmother and two maiden aunts for two years?
Back in the improbably named village of Luxembourg where Elvira grew up, they insist, somewhat shame-facedly, that they have no idea what's going on. Her father and stepmother, who have used threats and tears to try and stem her career in prostitution, now find themselves cut out of her life.
For decades the existence of prostitution in Kyrgyzstan was denied. In 1929, it was declared "the main scourge of the city". Prostitutes were categorised as "socially close" to the working class and the authorities launched a "revolutionary social struggle" to find them other work.
All registered prostitutes were to be reformed. Soon they disappeared - at least from official reports and statistics. In recent years though, the incidence of syphilis in the republic has increased 77-fold, prompting the Ministry of Health and the law enforcement agencies to take notice. They began to carry out monthly raids on vice haunts, in order to both treat and monitor prostitutes. This was how it became clear that the oldest profession is now recruiting younger and younger girls.
Out of 276 Bishkek prostitutes discovered last year for example, 28 were of school age, and 9 were minors aged between ten and 14. Eighty per cent of those checked had syphilis or other venereal diseases. Through them, another estimated 1,705 Bishkek women and newcomers to the capital are infected every year, resulting in a shocking annual statistic of 5,359 sufferers.
"In 1998 the indicator was even higher, at 6,729 sufferers," said the head of the Republican Skin and Venereal Dispenser Polyclinic, Byshevskaya. "Our raids and prophylactic work with youngsters and juveniles, which are a joint project of the education departments, the Ministry of Health, the anti-Aids Centre and law enforcement agencies are starting to have effect."
Doctors and VD specialists say that the main supply of young prostitutes comes from under-privileged families, particularly in rural areas and also those with drug and alcohol problems. Children from such backgrounds leave home and find themselves stuck at the bottom of the social pile. According to official statistics for 1999, 154 children in the capital have been declared missing; last year the number was 132. Add to that the shocking fact that Kyrgyzstan has over 15,000 injecting drug users, the majority of them youngsters, and the problem of child prostitution comes sharply into focus.
Many young girls work alone, approaching men directly. The price of a mauling by some sadist in a bush or public toilet is at best about 20-40 som, which buys a bottle of milk and loaf of bread. It is these "Lolitas" who are swelling the ranks of female alcoholics and drug users. The more successful become pimps. After working for four or five years herself, an experienced prostitute prefers to earn 300-500 som a day by selling young girls, lounging around in specially rented apartments, enjoying the food, drink and clothes found there. Many pimps also take the precaution of putting their most popular girls "on the needle".
Fifteen-year old Aida has been plying her trade next to Bishkek's central supermarket for three months. She came to the hospital voluntarily, suffering from a severe form of rash. Half of her face and neck have been eaten away and her hands were covered with bloody sores. Small, thin and foxlike, she seems like an old woman. She tells a sorry tale of pensioner-parents, of ill-fated attempts to earn money during summer holidays.
She claims she was given a Coca-Cola drink laced with vodka by semi acquaintances and then driven away somewhere. Her medical records reveal regressive syphilis, gonorrhea, two interrupted pregnancies and now this rash. A long hard-earned list which must go back at least a year.
All the girls have dramatic tales of how they started in prostitution. Kidnapping features frequently in their stories. Maybe they are reaching subconsciously into a collective memory of bride abduction, of which Kyrgyzstan has a long tradition. But while the criminal code still lists a prison sentence of from five to fifteen years for this offence, there is no penalty for consorting with under-age prostitutes.
For now, the HIV virus presents the only real threat of punishment. At present Krygystan has 42 cases - of whom 32 are foreigners - negligible figures compared with the Temirtau - a town in neighbouring Kazakstan - where 40 per cent of the inhabitants have already contracted the 20th Century plague.
Meanwhile, the summer holidays are approaching and with them a whole new flock of Kyrgyz Lolitas. Many dream of getting married, having first "worked a little". Gulmira, a first-year student at a Bishkek training institute boasts about how she has protected her virginity. She arrived at the dispensary with syphilis, the symptoms a splattering of characteristic ulcers on her lips and around her anus. A new definition of virginity.
Svetlana Suslova is the editor of the magazine Literaturnyi Kyrgyzstan.
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