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Iranian child victim of prostitution

By Julia Rooke
Reporter, Crossing Continents

Sold into prostitution aged nine, condemned by an Iranian judge to hang at 18, Leila was saved by a group of human rights activists.

Leila reading the newspaper
Leila was illiterate but she is now learning to read
"I was nine years old when my mother started selling me. I did not understand what was happening."

Today Leila is a young woman of 22. For the past two years she has been cared for by a private home for destitute young women in Tehran, Omid E Mehr, which means Hope.

"My mother would say: 'Let's go out to buy things, like chocolates'. She would actually trick me. I was a tiny girl. She just took me to places."

Leila still finds it difficult to talk about the past. But we know that the "places" she speaks of are where she was sold for sex and raped.

Leila became the main source of income for a family of five.

The lawyer who eventually saved Leila's life, Shadi Sadr, is a controversial figure in Iran. Although she was imprisoned earlier this year for taking part in human rights demonstrations, she is widely respected and frequently quoted in the press.

A girl is considered one of the first commodities or properties that can be traded or sold in the eyes of a parent who is poor in Iran
Shadi Sadr

Ms Sadr says Leila's story is not unique.

"A girl is considered one of the first commodities or properties that can be traded or sold in the eyes of a parent who is poor in Iran," she says.

Ms Sadr says that, in practice in Iran, under the Islamic penal code a father has enormous power over his own children.

"If a father decides to kill his own child he will not be sentenced to death, he will only be sent to prison for a couple of years."

Temporary wife

Leila lived in Arak, a small town four hours drive south of Tehran - notorious for criminal behaviour and illegal drugs. Most of Leila's earnings went on illegal narcotics for her family.

According to the United Nations three quarters of the world's opium seizures take place in Iran and the authorities acknowledge addiction is a serious problem.

Human rights lawyers say Leila's case is not unique

But there are no such statistics on prostitution. The Director of the Omid E Mehr centre in Tehran says it is a growing problem.

"I have entered many homes in the south of Tehran where young girls had to go out and sell their bodies to provide for their father's drug habits," says Eshrat Gholipour.

I have also seen several cases of families chaining their own daughter to the homes to stop them from running away."

I am going to tell you something but please do not be upset. You are going to be hanged
Prison warder

Leila's husband began selling her for sex to as many as 15 men each night. Two months into the marriage, police raided the house and arrested everyone.

The husband was sentenced to five years in jail for providing a house for illegal sex.

During the course of the criminal investigation, Leila's brothers had confessed to raping her. They were flogged. For this Leila was accused of incest. A crime punishable by death.

Leila was in a women's prison when she heard about her own sentence from the warder: "I am going to tell you something but please do not be upset. You are going to be hanged."

Ms Sadr says the judicial system is deeply conservative and unfair.

"These male judges have not had any training about sexual charges. They all have a chauvinistic point of view and they see the woman as guilty," she says.

Leila's brothers later retracted their confessions. Ms Sadr took Leila's case to appeal and won.

Death sentence

Earlier this year Ms Sadr defended and won the case of 19-year-old Nazanine, sentenced to death for killing a man who tried to rape her. Today she too is a free woman.

There will be so many protests... from the human rights activists that the judges are under pressure not to issue a death sentence"
Shadi Sadr

According to Amnesty International, 177 people were executed in Iran last year, of these four were women - this year the number is up to five. The real figures could be higher as executions are not always reported.

But Ms Sadr and other Iranian lawyers say that constant human-rights campaigning and publicity is making Iran's judges more sensitive to public opinion. "There will be so many protests or so much complaints from the human rights activists that the judges are under pressure not to issue a death sentence," she says.

Tender hope

Today Leila lives in a small flat with a full-time carer paid for by Ms Sadr and the Omid E Mehr day centre.

When Leila arrived she was illiterate and needed to be taught the basics of life.

Leila and Marjaneh Halati, Founder of the Omid e Mehr Centre
Leila is rebuilding her life and learning to be independent
"She did not know anything," says Marjaneh Halati, the founder of Omid E Mehr, "to the point that she did not know that you wear a pad when you get a period."

Today Leila is learning to read and earning money as a seamstress.

But Ms Halati also knows that by helping girls like Leila - by boosting their self-esteem and encouraging independence - the centre is treading a fine line.

"We live in Iran and there are certain rules we have to abide by, but it does not mean we cannot tell the girls that they are no different to men. They are individuals," she says.

Today Leila is free and attitudes may slowly be changing. Iran passed its first child protection laws five years ago.

This spring a new bill drafted by human rights lawyers, is expected to go before Parliament to make prosecutions in child abuse cases easier.

Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 tells Leila's story on Thursday, November 29 at 1100 GMT, her story will also be told on the World Service programme Assignment on Wednesday, December 5 at 0900 GMT.

Leila's interview was recorded by the Iranian filmmaker, Hamid Rahmanian for a film about the Omid e Mehr.

Crossing Continents


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Iran: The Story of Leila
22 Nov 07 |  Crossing Continents
Country profile: Iran
09 Oct 07 |  Country profiles


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