‘I Was Completely Hopeless’: Kabul’s Secret Sex Workers Are Living in Fear

Sex work was illegal under Afghanistan’s Western-backed governments but police and officials could be bribed – now some women in Kabul fear for their lives under the Taliban.

10 December 2021, 12:43pm

A decree issued by the Taliban banning forced marriage in Afghanistan is little comfort to the women who continue to feel the consequences of being victims of the practice.

Zakia, not her real name, was 14 when she was forced to marry her brother’s friend in Herat province. Within days it became apparent that her new husband, who had paid a bride price equivalent to around £4,000, intended to force her into prostitution. In Afghanistan, a bride price or toyana, is a tradition negotiated between families prior to marriage, as a means of “compensation” for the family of the bride for having raised the woman. It is considerably higher in rural areas, which are poorer than cities and have higher rates of illiteracy.

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“My husband was forcing me, often beating me to work and make money,” Zakia, now 20, told VICE World News via WhatsApp. “I was not willing to do that.”

Zakia fled back to the home of her brother, who she said was not aware of his friend’s intentions in marrying her. But her brother then forced Zakia out of the house – “He was ashamed of me. I was completely hopeless.”

Zakia ended up in Kabul, where she had no money and nowhere to stay. “I slept six nights in Kabul’s graveyards in the snowy winter that year, I will never forget that.” 

Desperately seeking shelter, Zakia then shared her story with the owner of a restaurant in the capital. “He introduced me to a woman who was running one of prostitution houses,” she said. “After all that hard time, I had no choice but to go with her.” 

Before the Taliban returned to power in August, international NGOs were working to help protect vulnerable women, mainly in Kabul and Herat. But after the collapse of western-backed Afghan government, many of the NGOs and their workers have left the country.

Zakia says before the Taliban returned, she was making the equivalent of around £1,500 a month, but with the collapsing economy, that amount has decreased to around a tenth of that. “Nothing is like before. These days are really hard. We don’t have money. There is no way but to be patient.”

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Sex work was technically illegal under the previous Western-backed governments of Afghanistan, but according to Zakia, “women and men were not afraid of the previous regime’s police because we could get rid of them easily with money.”

A woman who runs the only protection house for women in Kabul told VICE World News that she expected the Taliban would try to push young men and women to marry by lowering the costs of marriages.

“[Sex work] is like demand and supply, it will continue as long as human being exists,” she said. “Men are really afraid of the Taliban now; I don’t think they will now dare to openly go for finding [sex workers].”

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said Afghan women turned to sex work mainly because of extreme poverty.

“Even before the return of the Taliban, Afghanistan had little in terms of effective social protections for women and girls. This meant that it was easy for a husband or in-laws or male family members to abuse a girl or woman, through subjecting her to physical or sexual violence, or forced and/or child marriage, or selling her (as we hear about with increasing frequency at the moment, as families face hunger during the deepening humanitarian crisis) or through compelling her to sell sex,” Barr told VICE World News. 

Zakia said she has real fears for her life now the Taliban are in power.

“I changed my phone after the Taliban came, since then, I only talk to those who I really trust,” she said.

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Since the Taliban takeover, the Islamist group has not allowed women to return to their jobs, and banned girls from secondary education. Women judges and lawyers, who could have defended vulnerable women, have either fled the country or are living in hiding.

“The Taliban appear to have no plans to allow women in those roles,” Barr said. 

The Taliban have brought back the notorious ministry that in the 1990s deployed patrols of men with whips to ensure women adhered to draconian laws. Since their return to power, there have been no reports of people being stoned for adultery, although such cases may have happened outside the research of the media – the Taliban have tightened their control over local media, with most women disappearing from TV stations.

A Taliban fighter in Kabul who investigates offences under the group’s ultra-harsh interpretation of Sharia, Islamic law, told VICE World News it was difficult to find evidence of adultery. “There might be some areas where adultery happens, but it is really hard to catch them on the spot or find evidence,” he said.

As winter comes in Kabul, Zakia’s only fear is her two-year-old son. “I don’t want to spend my winter in graveyards. I will do whatever I can to not let my son starve to death.”

Tagged:

Taliban, Kabul, worldnews

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