Lifting the veil on the Afghan sex trade
Four years ago George W. Bush boasted of the liberation of the women of Afghanistan, but he may not have envisaged what that new freedom had in store for mother-of-three Zakia Khodum.
Zakia, 35, works as a prostitute. 'Now I am free to do my work. Under the Taleban, I would never have been able to do this. The only difference now is that I can work as a prostitute, so I guess I am free to do my work. I'm not happy with this job, but I have to do this because I have no choice,' she says quietly.
Dressed in a full-length blue burqa, only a glimpse of black leather high-heels can be seen. She appears no different to the scores of other women milling past the Haji Keftan Zadran market in Kot-e-Sangi, south Kabul, hurrying along, arms laden with shopping bags, haggling with stallholders over the price of raisins and vegetables.
Her finger nails are tinted with orange hues of faded henna, one of the increasing numbers of thousands of Afghan women and girls forced into the sex industry out of economic necessity.
'I never thought I would end up doing this. I will try my best to make sure that no one finds out about me. My hope is that I don't have to keep doing this... [but] it's the only way to continue to earn money. As long as I can continue to keep it a secret, I will keep on doing it.
'If I could get a good job, I would give this job up immediately but I can't. I'm illiterate. I can do this up to the age of 40. Then I don't know what [I will do],' she adds. Her voice is soft and her laughter rings out, echoing the jangle of the gold bangles which adorn her wrists.
Home for her is a two-room house she rents with her husband, 40-year-old Sher, and three children Mashtaba, 11, Kausim, 9, and seven-year-old daughter Alima.
She says her husband has suffered from breathing problems for years and cannot walk very far. Sher's illness and Zakia's inability to find a job - between 30 and 50 per cent of the nation's 30 million people are unemployed - forced her to start selling her body three years ago to feed her family.
It wasn't always like this. Zakia had hoped Afghanistan would flourish after the fall of the Taleban in 2001, and she returned with her family to Kabul after living as refugees in Iran and Pakistan.
'When I returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan, people were very happy and they were celebrating, people could move around freely,' Zakia says lifting the front of her burqa, her oriental features giving away her Hazara ethnicity.
'I was also happy. I was tired of being an immigrant in other countries. I wanted to be home. Now there is democracy [but] there are no jobs.'
She took the painful step into prostitution by contacting other Afghan women she knew who were working in the flesh trade. These women gave her the telephone numbers of men who were willing to pay for sex. Now Zakia has built up a regular list of clients - all Afghan men between the ages of 25 and 30 whom she meets in houses, men she relies on.
She earns around 4,000 Afghanis (US$80) a month, money she keeps as her work is not controlled by pimps or brothel-owners. By Afghan standards, being a prostitute is a lucrative business; senior Government ministers earn an average monthly salary of US$70.
But Zakia's prosperity comes at a heavy price. Afghanistan's fledgling constitution was formed in accordance with Islamic Sharia Law and centuries-old traditions based on feudal and tribal customs mean a family's and a woman's honour are paramount. Afghan women who become prostitutes operate in the darkest shadows of society.
'I do not tell my husband [about this]. I tell him I've got a job somewhere. If I did not do that I would not eat. If he knew, he would not allow me to go out anymore and would lock me in our home. People would shun me,' she adds.
While prostitution existed both before and during the Taleban, Afghan women's rights groups believe the number of sex workers in the country is increasing at a greater rate than before because the country has reached an unprecedented level of economic hardship and lawlessness.
Armed conflict has characterised Afghanistan's recent history. Almost three decades of war - through the communist era, the Soviet invasion and a bloody civil war, followed by the Taleban - has left its legacy. A generation of women has been forced to survive without husbands, fathers and sons to rely on. Almost five years after the fall of the Taleban, western governments insist Afghanistan is on a slow but sure road to recovery.
But time is not on Zakia's side. Now in her mid-thirties, her earning potential continues to fall as she grows older. Men are willing to pay more for younger girls, a reality which means many Afghan sex workers are barely out of childhood.
The taboo associated with being touched by a man out of wedlock is so great that many teenage sex workers pay as much as US$2,000 to have their virginity 'restored' through surgery.
Moqadas knows only too well the darker side of life as a young girl growing up in Kabul. Dark kohled eyes are the only visible sign of a face which hints at being beautiful behind the deep burgundy headscarf she uses to maintain what's left of her modesty.
The 18-year-old was forced to wed at the age of 12 by parents who believed they were marrying their daughter into a loving, prosperous family. It was only when she moved into her 16-year-old husband Raheem's home in Kabul that she realised her new family was running a brothel.
Within weeks of being married, Moqadas's in-laws tried to force her to have sex with men.
She says: 'There were times when I was in my room and they would send men to me but I was screaming and shouting to get them to take the men away.
'The men who would come [to the brothel] were about 17 or 18 years old but the girls were about seven or eight. I don't know where they came from as I was never allowed to leave the house.'
Eighteen months later, after three suicide attempts and almost daily beatings by her husband and older brother-in-law Faheem, Moqadas's ordeal came to an end when her younger brother-in-law Fawad told her parents and Moqadas's father rescued her from her living hell.
The eldest of six girls and barely literate, the teenager now seldom leaves her parents' home in Qulab Chakan, a slum in the Afghan capital, where the reek of raw sewage hangs in the air and children play by open sewers.
Moqadas adds: 'I am glad that during that period I was not raped. There are so many women who go through this and they have awful lives because of poverty or because their husbands beat them. This is not unusual in Afghanistan. How can the outside world ignore this? If their own daughters were raped, how would they feel? I have not thought about my future, though one thing is final, I will never marry again.'
Pinpointing exactly how many Afghan women and girls work in the sex trade is made difficult by the fact that prostitutes are ashamed to admit what they do. The Afghan government runs shelters where widows and fatherless girls can be educated and learn job skills. This year it also plans to set up offices in the 34 provinces to help women find work. Despite that, ministers refuse to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
The latest research by the underground women's rights organisation the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) reveals that as many as 25,000 Afghan women worked as prostitutes in 2001 - 5,000 of those were in Kabul alone - with stark predictions that the number will rise as women and girls resort to selling themselves to escape poverty.
RAWA members, who risked their lives to secretly film violence perpetrated by the Taleban and leaked it to the outside world, provide shelters for homeless sex workers. They also provide vocational training and education for prostitutes in Herat, Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad.
'It's very difficult to count the exact number of prostitutes because Afghanistan is a tribal and traditional society. The number must be higher now because refugees from Iran and Pakistan have come back. The numbers have increased because poverty has increased after the fall of the Taleban,' says RAWA spokeswoman Saforaia Walid.
The association believes the international community, which has already pledged billions of dollars in aid, must continue to financially support Afghanistan. Widespread corruption within the political system must also be eradicated before economic and political stability, employment and security can gain footholds in the country.
Ms Walid adds: 'If society is still like it is now, we believe the [prostitute] population will increase because the problem is money in the lives of these people. If their finances improved, they would never allow themselves to do that work. Everything is dependent on a good government and the finances of the people and a stable economy.'
Economic predictions for Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, make bleak reading. The International Monetary Fund predicts GDP for the average Afghan this year will reach a high of almost US$350 (up from US$125 in 2001) and the country's economy is developing strongly. But much of this new-found wealth has yet to trickle down into the pockets of ordinary Afghans.
The British Department for International Development warns 70 per cent of Afghans live on less than US$2 a day and that as many as 40 per cent of rural Afghans are malnourished.
Politicians in and outside Afghanistan may rightly believe the country needs time to stabilise. But their rhetoric means little to the nation's prostitutes, the silent face of the nation's first, tentative steps towards a semblance of peace and security in recent years, the human cost of a society that has yet to achieve stability much less come to terms with its tragic and violent past.