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Tajikistan Offers Morality Lessons To Sex Workers

Tajik Prostitutes Seek 'Protection' Under Hijab
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WATCH: Tajik Prostitutes Seek 'Protection' Under Hijab

Marziya says her family and two kids are unaware of "the nature of her occupation." They have no idea that every evening, when she takes a bus to the provincial center, she won't really be working as a waitress at a disco.

But now, once every three weeks, she won't be working the streets of Qurgon-Teppa as a prostitute either. Those days are reserved for the morality classes she was recently enrolled in by local police.

Marziya, who declined to disclose her full name, is among some 30 women signed up for the new initiative to turn local sex workers away from their profession.

The main goal, according to Qumriniso Sangalieva, deputy of Khatlon Province's department of family and women's affairs, is to "help these women to get themselves on the right path."

The classes, the first of their kind in Tajikistan, were organized by the department in early April.

Prostitution is technically a misdemeanor in the predominantly Muslim country, and is punishable by a fine or, in the case of repeat offenders, detention. But it is still illegal, and is by no means accepted by the authorities.

RFE/RL attended the inaugural session given to the women, all of whom are considered by local police to be repeat offenders as prostitutes.

The speakers -- including a doctor, police officials, and community leaders -- lectured their audience on moral values and provided advice on career options.

The police officials focused on the dangers sex workers faced, including becoming victims of human trafficking. The doctor focused on the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

Sangalieva concedes that such lessons alone are not enough to convince prostitutes to give up their profession. But the official wants to get the point across that authorities are ready to help sex workers rebuild their lives, "for example, by offering job retraining to widen their possibility of finding work."

"While some of the women agreed, some didn't," Sangalieva said after the first class.

'Give Me A Job And I'll Stop'

One woman, who introduced herself as Gulsora, says she attended the lecture "only because police told me to," after detaining her in a recent night raid.

"The authorities need to lecture men, instead," Gulsora adds. "They need to tell men that it is wrong to leave wives and children without alimony after divorce."

Unemployed and with no job qualifications, Gulsora says she was "forced by circumstances" to become a sex worker two years after her husband -- a migrant laborer in Russia -- left her.

"I know what I do is wrong," Gulsora says. "Give me a job and I will stop. No one becomes a prostitute by choice."

In an official survey conducted among women sex workers across Tajikistan by the Health Ministry in November, more than 80 percent of the respondents cited lack of income as their primary reason for turning to prostitution. They said they would give up prostitution if they could find a job.

High unemployment is a major problem in Tajikistan, and has led more than 1.2 million people, mostly men, to travel to Russia to work as migrant laborers.

'Useful Information'

In October, parliament amended the law to double the amount prostitutes can be fined to as much as $150, and introduced a two-week detention for repeat offenders.

However, the lawmakers resisted calls to make prostitution subject to greater criminal charges, saying it would not end prostitution.

The calls have intensified since 2013, when the authorities noted a significant rise in the number of sex workers, including underage girls in the capital and other cities.

That year, the State Women's Affairs Committee said it had registered 1,641 prostitutes, up 25 percent on the previous year.

In 2014, police said they exposed at least 275 brothels in Dushanbe, a substantial increase from the previous year, when 180 brothels were uncovered.

There are no official statistics about the number of sex workers in Tajikistan overall.

In Khatlon, authorities have registered some 70 sex workers detained in police raids, although they believe the real numbers are much higher.

Prostitutes are often visibly waiting for customers near busy city bazaars, discos, and bus stations. Some of the women wait in groups, others -- like Marziya -- work alone.

After her first morality class, Marziya went back to her roadside spot, a short walking distance from the central bazaar.

Marziya says she hopes the authorities will eventually help her to find a decent job.She is planning to ask them in future meetings.

For now she is taking home "some useful information," Marziya says, having learned about symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases and the address of a hospital that offers free checkups and treatment.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Orzu Karim in Khatlon Province

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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 region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.