Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyz Sex Trade Flourishes
It is often said that prostitution did not exist under Communism. It did. The sex trade was simply tightly controlled and organised with the tacit approval of the authorities.
Then known as Frunze, the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek boasted a training school for fighter pilots from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Certain women were allowed to "entertain" the visiting cadets in a handful of local hard currency bars and restaurants.
In an era of general shortage and shabbiness, these women were distinguished by their Western fashions and expensive perfumes. From time to time, the police would organise show raids when the prostitutes were rounded up then released back at the station.
After independence, these women used their experience and overseas contacts to ply a lucrative trade as international pimps. The oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) became their main market. Here Kyrgyz "businesswomen" met patrons, searched out loopholes in the law and studied the mores of potential clients. Returning home to Bishkek, they began to seek out their quarry.
They dazzled Kyrgyz girls with promises of well-paid work in Dubai as waitresses and dancers. Special companies took care of all the travel arrangements. But, as soon as they arrived in Dubai, the girls were relieved of their passports and forced into prostitution by the racketeers.
However, a string of suicides and high-profile scandals forced the cartels to change their tactics.
The sex industry turned its attention to call-girls who were already working in Bishkek's flourishing saunas and hotels. These new courtesans knew exactly what they were getting into and courses were even established to teach manners, dancing and English.
From small beginnings, the sex trade to Dubai has ballooned to such an extent that, according to official figures, a total of 794 Kyrgyz "tourists" visited the Gulf state over a nine-month period last year. Of these, 556 were women - 450 aged between 18 and 35.
Typically, poverty on the one hand and promises of fairytale luxury on the other have pushed a vast number of girls into the international sex trade. Many of these girls first migrated to Bishkek from the countryside in the hope of finding work. Lacking the necessary educational qualifications, many soon took to the streets.
Without the resources to set up a full-blown "vice squad", the Kyrgyz authorities have just one police officer fighting the international trafficking in women. It is part of Lieutenant Tursun Rakhmanov's job to document the plight of the girls he comes across. Veronika's story is typical.
"I came to Bishkek from my village and rented an apartment," says the 22-year-old. "Before that I used to come on holidays and days off, to work as a prostitute, so I knew the market. But soon the rent for the apartment went up and the competition - 13- and 14-year-old girls prepared to do anything for $3 -- forced me out on to the street. But even walking the streets I never let myself go. I took care of myself, tried not to drink or do drugs.
"Perhaps that's why I caught the eye of one madam who turned up at our usual spot. A woman of about 35, Larissa, stepped out of a flashy car, called me over and took a passport and visa out of her handbag - it only needed a photo to be stuck in it. We agreed to meet the following day by the city clock.
"At exactly five, me and another four girls were standing underneath the clock. We thought we'd be able to get an advance, go to the hairdressers and buy some nice clothes. But Larissa explained what was going to happen to us in detail: 'We're going right now,' she said. 'Each of you pays me back $4,000 and another $500 for the visa. If you don't like it, get out of the car!'
"We flew out of Chimkent. In Dubai, the first thing they did at the airport exit was to take our passports away. Then they took us to a hotel. The rooms weren't bad, but we were forbidden from going any further than the hall because of the police. There wasn't any time anyway. Up to 30 clients a day! For the first three days they would take us out to the beach and photograph us in swimsuits they'd hired for the occasion. We found out later that Larissa was using the pictures as adverts to drum up business.
"The hotel was average - not expensive, but not the cheapest either. The slang expression for it was 'a one-off'. That meant that one sexual act there cost 50 diram ($15), while an hour of "loving" costs 100 diram ($27). We didn't see any money anyway. Everything, even what the clients gave us as tips, was taken off us by the minders. They kept telling us that we were lucky. Thais, Indonesians and Filipinos work in the cheap 'workers'' hotels, and the rich Arabs don't make use of their services. They end up catering for the seasonal workers - Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese.
"They paid our keep, fed us quite well, and bought the odd bottle of perfume. But we had to work for that money! You'd just got out of the bath and the next sheik was on the doorstep, and you had to keep everyone happy. And they fined us for every little fault. Once a girlfriend and I went to a shop close by. The minders saw us and made us work off another 300 diram! ($80).
"Four months went by. Then, one day, the minders turned up in a cheerful mood and told us that from now on we would be working for ourselves, but that we would have to pay for food and the hotel. Usually the bell-boy or the receptionist would tell us if the police were coming. But one night nobody gave us any warning. I spent 10 days behind bars before being deported .
"I went home with nothing. But I think I'll go back, only this time I won't be such an idiot. There were girls there from Russia, Kazakstan, the Ukraine as well as Kyrgyzstan. There were at least 500 of us."
For many women going to work abroad, the sex tours had far worse consequences. One returned home in a coffin; others have simply gone missing. A group of 12 mothers recently visited Rakhmanov asking for his help in finding their missing daughters. However, with neither the resources nor the mandate to do so, the lieutenant was unable to help.
The problem of juvenile girls being exported abroad to work as prostitutes is of particular concern. One cartel targets attractive girls from poor families. Sometimes they approach the parents offering money and openly discussing what their daughter will be doing abroad. Sometimes the parents agree to the deal.
If they don't, the recruiters often try to tempt the girls directly by showing them photographs of stunning hotels, swimming pools and fabulous beaches. Using forged passports, the traffickers take them abroad pretending they are relatives.
In the town of Chuy-Tokmok, Fatima A. will be brought to trial for having turned an under-age girl to prostitution. Having forged a Kyrgyzstan national passport, the enterprising "mother" had sold the girl to a brothel-in the UAE.
And today Kyrgyzstan is not only exporting its daughters, but is in danger of becoming a centre for prostitution in its own right. Rakhmanov recently found three Chinese nationals working the streets of Bishkek, whilst in Osh he came across 10 "working girls" from Uzbekistan. Almost every day, new additions are made to the police files-girls from Russia, refugees from Tajikistan and Kazak nationals.
Can the republic withstand the import-export deficit of "commercial sex" on its own? It is a question worthy of serious consideration.
Alexander Zelichenko is a freelance journalist in Bishkek
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