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World's Oldest Profession Up For Discussion In Tajikistan

Tajik Sex Worker Speaks On Camera
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WATCH: A Tajik sex worker, who identified herself only as "Rano," spoke on camera with RFE/RL in Dushanbe in May.

Like anywhere else in the world, prostitutes in Tajikistan can take the low road or the high-class road.

"Rano" says the services she provides as a call girl can bring in upward of $2,000 per month, whereas "Sitora" says she can make about $200 working as a prostitute on the streets of Dushanbe.

Either way, in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $150, the world's oldest profession is an enticing option for some women.

Prostitution has traditionally been a taboo topic in Tajikistan, and strong social stigmas are attached to the occupation. But in legal terms prostitution is only a misdemeanor offense punishable by a small fine, and officials have documented a rise in the number of sex workers.

Rano, a 33-year-old Dushanbe resident who spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service using a pseudonym, acknowledges she makes her living by selling her body.

The money she generates allows her to place her two children in private school, treat herself to expensive clothing and beauty treatments, and pay $300 a month to ensure she has a steady stream of clients and a measure of personal security.

She prefers to work for foreigners, she says, because "they take us out to dinner, buy us food and drinks, and then they ask if we wish to spend the night with them."
"Sitora" says she and other sex workers are often victims of extortion and violence.
"Sitora" says she and other sex workers are often victims of extortion and violence.

The problem with Tajik clients, she laments, is that "the moment you enter their place they immediately drag you to bed. They make you feel bad. They make you feel like a prostitute."

And the work is hazardous, she adds, "because I have to deal with total strangers who sometimes turn out to be criminals or maniacs." To alleviate the risks, Rano says she relies on "protectors," including police officers.

Sitora, who also spoke to RFE/RL using a fake name, has no such luxuries. She spends her nights walking the streets for hours, waiting for random clients to pick her up, with no guarantees of safety or payment.

Her face sports a fresh bruise, courtesy of a recent client who refused to pay the amount the two had negotiated. Instead, he beat her in a dark corner of a Dushanbe backstreet.

She and her fellow streetwalkers are also frequently targeted for extortion by law enforcement. "Police frequently round us up in the streets," she says. "When I have money, I pay a fine or bribe to rescue myself, but when I can't pay they lock me up for several days."

'Criminalization Not The Answer'

Working as a prostitute is a minor offense in Tajikistan, but running a brothel or working as a pimp is punishable by up to eight years in jail.

Business appears to be booming. The state Women's Affairs Committee says it registered 1,641 prostitutes in 2013, up 25 percent over the previous year. The figures are based on raids carried out to identify possible victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution, or underage prostitutes.

According to official figures there were 189 illegal brothels in Tajikistan in 2013. That year, the committee identified 41 women below the age of 18 working as street prostitutes. The real number of sex workers, the committee admits, is much higher.

This has prompted calls for more action to be taken to prevent women from getting caught up in the sex industry (the prospect of men working as prostitutes has apparently not been addressed).

Noting the many cases of prostitutes abandoning their babies, Mairambi Ghafurova, who heads the Children's Rights Department of the southern Khatlon region, in 2012 called on parliament to legally ban prostitution.

Lawmaker Saodat Amirshoeva says she frequently hears such suggestions during discussions and meetings, but she argues that criminalization is not the solution, because it won't end prostitution.

Sitora, who became a sex worker after her husband left her and their infant son nearly a decade ago, says full legalization is the answer. "We would pay our taxes, and expect some kind of social protection, such as a pension," she suggests.

Among the preventative measures being considered by officials is opening a special school for underage prostitutes to help them to complete their secondary education, and to learn professional skills that would help them find a different line of work.

Readers' reactions to RFE/RL's Tajik Service's recent publication of a video in which Rano discusses her life as a sex worker show signs that a once-taboo subject is slowly becoming a subject for open debate.

"It's easy to judge and hate others, but some unwritten rules in our society are to blame for prostitution," wrote Shahrwand from Dushanbe. "Sons always get better treatment and more rights than girls. Sons inherit their parents' houses, cars, and money. Daughters are seen by parents as someone who will get married and leave home. It's not fair. When her husband dies or divorces, she has no means to support herself."

Others are not nearly so forgiving. "God forbid prostitution becomes legal in Tajikistan," writes Faiziddin from Hisor district. "The Earth would swallow us up."

Tajik Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda, meanwhile, has told RFE/RL that amid all the attention he has instructed police to compile a list of anyone who is detained in connection with prostitution, and to subject sex workers detained in police raids on brothels to compulsory medical tests for HIV/AIDS, and sexually transmitted diseases.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Tajik Service

    RFE/RL’s Tajik Service is a trusted source of local news, attracting audiences with compelling reporting on issues not otherwise covered by Tajikistan’s state-run media.

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