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Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 16:42 GMT
Inside a Peshawar brothel
Afghan women struggle to survive
By BBC's Branwen Jeffreys in Peshawar

It's not easy finding a prostitute during Ramadan. During the holy month they lie low, as their customers stay away.

Even during the rest of the year in Peshawar the oldest profession operates with discretion bordering on invisibility.

But I had been told in the refugee camps around the city that some destitute women coming over the border from Afghanistan had turned to selling sex to support their children. It's not hard to see why.

If I had education there's no way I'd do this work

Afghan prostitute
The war has left many women widowed and without other immediate family. Village women, who only know how to farm, find themselves alone in one of the huge refugee camps or in a city.

In Peshawar at sunset each day crowds of women gather on the pavements outside bakeries, begging for bread at the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

Hidden problem

Arian McGee works for a charity that carries out education work on Aids and other sexually-transmitted diseases in this intensely conservative society. That means not just going into schools, but trying to reach those most at risk - the sex workers of Peshawar and the other frontier towns.

Adrian and his team had become familiar with the public pick-up points - bus stops, parks and even hospital waiting rooms. In the last two years, he told me, they had seen a steady and visible increase in the number of Afghan women working as prostitutes.

Afghan girls at a school in Peshwar:
Afghan girls at a school in Peshwar: A new opportunity to learn
"It's a hidden problem and I can't put numbers on it, but it's happening," he said.

"Some of these women have no other option, they've tried to get other work, but it's so difficult for women, some turn to prostitution."

Adrian sent us with one of his colleagues, an outreach worker recruited from a male dance troupe - they often worked alongside female prostitutes, and he could take us to a brothel.

Slight, lithe and incredibly camp, he draped one leg over the other in the front seat of the car.

Shops were closing in the dusk. Formidable looking men in turbans hurried home by cycle, rickshaw or horse drawn cart.

Inside the cart the former dancer broke in a high voice into a famous Pashtun love song, Bibi Shirini, giving it the full song and dance routine - swaying and making eyes at our young Pakistani driver, who was by turns embarrassed and pleased.

We drove along progressively narrower and shabbier streets until he told us to stop. We were hurried into a large house, and sat on a bed to wait.

A young prostitute combed out her hair, watching us in the mirror. Five or six girls - none older than their mid twenties - were ushered in to meet us - lining up to look at the two European women sitting in the bedroom of a Peshawar brothel.

Friendly, shy and curious they were all Pakistani - but knew of Afghan women. A few minutes of shrugging and smiling followed the inevitable question - how could we meet them? They said they would ask.


So late one evening I found myself sitting on the floor besides two Afghan women - both refugees.

The younger - just 22 - had arrived a couple of months earlier from Afghanistan - from a village north of Kabul. She pulled nervously at her clothes, her head modestly covered with a white voile shawl as she told me her husband and parents had been killed in the war.

Afghan woman begging on street
Many Afghan women have been reduced to begging
She had not long been married, a village girl with no education - now, so ashamed she wouldn't tell me her name.

Left alone to look after three young children, two brothers and a sister, she had walked with them into Pakistan to Peshawar.

"If I had education there's no way I'd do this work," she said softly. "I wish something would come out of the blue to take us away from this life. We are forced to do this; so are other women. For the children I've destroyed my life."

The price for her shame is thousands of rupees. A pretty young woman like this can earn more than a $150 a month, a fortune compared to any other work. But some older women are reduced to selling sex for less than two dollars.

And as prostitutes lose their novelty value many are compelled to move from town to town in search of new clients, trying to keep their price high.

So many of the refugees you meet in Pakistan talk with real longing of going home to Afghanistan. But this time I didn't need to ask.

For this young women and others like her there is no way back. Once a respectable girl, now a prostitute, she won't be able to return to her village.

The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"Old attitudes here are hard to break"
The BBC's Branwen Jeffreys
"Some destitute women have turned to selling sex to feed their children"
See also:

06 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's new women politicians
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghan women want their voices heard
27 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul women's march thwarted
24 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul women keep the veil
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