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

Kyrgyz Sex Trade Flourishes

Naïve and desperate women in Kyrgyzstan are falling prey to the sex trade
By Kubat Otorbaev

Publications in Kyrgyzstan are packed with ads designed to lure the naïve into sexual slavery - "attractive girls wanted for well-paid work abroad", "beautiful women sought as dancers", "get married through the internet".


Olga answered such an ad. "I was still 19 but had to support my little boy and disabled mother," she said. "I heard it was possible to earn a lot of money in the United Arab Emirates, so I decided to go there.


"I had to go with up to 30 men a day, but I got no money. After a month, I was arrested and put in prison. Four months later, I was deported back to Bishkek. I came home with nothing."


Olga's story is typical. Women like her are lured by the promise of earning good money. They're given fake passports, transported abroad and effectively sold into sexual slavery. They're obliged to work as prostitutes, often catering for dozens of men every day.


Experts attending a seminar last month on human-trafficking in Kyrgyzstan concluded the problem has reached a disastrous proportions, with traffickers preying on vulnerable young women and children, many of whom unwittingly end up trapped in the sex industry.


"While abroad I managed to accumulate $10,000, but I had to pay $7,000 for my freedom," said Irina. Another girl, Nurgul, complains that when she came home all she had was "a leather jacket, shoes and some photos".


The business brings enormous profits to the traffickers. Some reports estimate "slave traders" earn $30,000 to $40,000 per "commodity", providing them with plenty of cash to circumvent immigration laws, pay off police and customs officials.


The number of women enticed by the pimps is rising rapidly. The majority are taken to Kazakstan, Russia, Estonia, the Caucasus, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, China and Germany. But there have also been reports of Kyrgyz women working in India, Iran, Malaysia, Sweden, Qatar and Greece.


Children too are falling victim. In 1999, 154 Kyrgyz children were reported missing and are thought to have been sent overseas. Not all of them end up in the sex industry. Many are used as cheap labour or even as organ transplant donors. Babies are sometimes sold to rich childless couples desperate for kids of their own.


Marat Sultanov, chairman of the Pervomaiski district court in Bishkek, says special emphasis needs to be given to the young, especially homeless and unsupervised children. "There are more and more such children, who do not attend school, live in cellars and markets and do not have adults looking out for them," he said.


According to the British-based charity, Save the Children, ten per cent of prostitutes - between 2,000 and 2,500 in Bishkek alone - are under 18.


Fear of AIDS has boosted demand for virgins. The younger the girl, the more clients are prepared to pay. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, clients pay between $300 and $500 for a night with a virgin.


With the Bishkek government either unwilling or unable to tackle the problem, a number of international organisations and NGOs have sought to do so.


The latter point out that while the government has signed 11 international conventions related to the problem of human-trafficking, two treaties concerning the rights of those travelling abroad in search of work have yet to be ratified.


Sultanov notes the republic has virtually no legal precedent for prosecuting individuals for crimes related to human-trafficking. "In the criminal code, there is no such notion as 'trading in humans,' he said.


According to the justice ministry, there was one case in 1999 where trafficking suspects were charged, but it was dropped for reasons that remain unclear. The year before, 19 people were convicted for trading in children.


Parliamentary deputy Kubat Baibolov argues reforming the law is not the answer. "We should revive the economy and improve people's lives," he said. " Huge work is also needed in bringing up the young generation. We should educate these youngsters against searching for a quick and easy way to get rich."


To date, there is no precise information on the number of women taken abroad to work in the sex industry. The authorities report that 8,367 left the country in 1999, but there is no way of knowing how many ended up as slave labour or prostitutes.


Life in Kyrgyzstan is extremely hard, especially for women. They make up the vast majority of the unemployed. And even prostitution is becoming less and less lucrative. The growing number of prostitutes has increased competition, fees are falling and the lifestyle is becoming more dangerous.


Life is even worse for the foreign sex slaves who return to Kyrgyzstan, deeply traumatised and unable to trust a soul.


Kubat Otorbaev is an IWPR contributor