When Zainab met her first client almost two years ago, she was drunk, drugged-up, and had passed out by the time he started raping her. She had never touched alcohol before, but was told she’d be better off unconscious. Terrified, she reluctantly agreed.
The man was gone when the then 18-year-old woke up; her body in pain, her thoughts filled with regret.
She says she now has no alternative but to continue selling sex.
In Afghanistan, sex work is illegal. But as war – and the widespread poverty that comes with it – lingers, the number of women and men who see the trade as their last option has been steadily rising. Although the penal code does not specify the punishment for sex work, they risk a prison sentence if they get caught.
“Poverty and illiteracy are the main drivers for prostitution,” says a spokesperson at the women’s affairs ministry. “There’s a lack of understanding when it comes to sexual knowledge, especially among younger women. Often, they are deceived into the business.”
Several non-profit organisations across Afghanistan confirmed a steep rise in numbers, estimating that “hundreds” worked in the capital, Kabul. Men and women who sell sex operate out of friends’ houses, coffee shops and beauty parlours. Fearing threats and retribution, aid workers who were interviewed asked the Guardian not to reveal names.
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With the burden of having to take care of her five younger siblings after her father’s death, Zainab had dropped out of school to work full-time as a housekeeper.
When her younger brother became ill and needed hospital care and medication, she asked for a pay advance. But her employer told her: “I don’t have money, but I can bring you a man. You’re a virgin, you will be able to receive a lot of money.”
It was then that Zainab found out about the underground brothel her employer ran. Now 20, Zainab continues to see between two and three men every week, receiving 2,000 afghani (£18) from each of them.
“I was 13 years old when my father died. My mother had long been sick, and as the oldest, I had to take responsibility for my family. I started working as a housekeeper, but the money was never enough,” Zainab says.
Zainab, sex workerThey take 10 minutes, sometimes 20. Some use condoms, but not all of them do
Wrapped in a black abaya cloak, Zainab agreed to be interviewed under one condition: no photographs, no last names, no reference to the neighbourhood where she has been working. She sits with her hands folded as she describes her work, only her eyes exposed.
“Most of the men are young, between 25 and 30 years old, and most of them are married. They know my employer and call her to arrange an appointment. Some men request to choose from several girls,” she says, constantly reminding me how much she hates what she does.
“They take 10 minutes, sometimes 20. Some use condoms, but not all of them do,” she says, explaining that her employer provides regular birth control injections to avoid pregnancy, but that she was worried about diseases. “Every time I’m alone in a room with a man, I am scared.” Neither friends nor family know how she’s sustaining an income. Zainab tells them she still works as a housekeeper.
Heather Barr, co-director for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, says she first met women in Afghanistan selling sex in 2012 and found that many were forced to do it or found it was their only option to survive.
“It illustrates huge failings by the Afghan government in protecting women’s rights,” she says. “Women should never be so cut off from help that they can be abused by others in this way without being able to escape, and the government’s complete lack of a financial safety net and other assistance is what creates a situation where this can be a woman’s only option to survive.”
Zainab says she has seen other women at her employer’s house, but she has never talked to them, too ashamed to admit what she does. She knows many male sex workers operate across Kabul as well, but says she hasn’t met any of them.
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Javeed (not his real name), a 28-year-old husband and father of three, explains that he lives a double life, with his wife and children unaware of his other occupation.
“I realised many men wanted to sleep with me and I needed money. I started going home with people and developed an interest. Some are now my clients and pay me; others are friends who I decide to have sex with,” he says.
The money, he says, is barely enough to feed his children and provide them with school supplies. Unlike Zainab, he claims his clients never use condoms.
Barr says: “The blanket criminalisation of zina [the Islamic term for illicit sexual relations] pushes sex work underground and cuts sex workers off from opportunities they could have to at least protect themselves and make their working conditions safer.”
Both Javeed and Zainab say they cannot see a way out of their current situation.
“I know it’s dangerous. I’m scared living this double life,” Zainab says. “But I don’t know how else I would support my younger siblings. I’m sacrificing myself for my family.”