To understand sex trafficking, you must first understand prostitution.
Our team has spent a considerable amount of time researching and experiencing the landscape that is prostitution in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This prostitution leads directly to sex trafficking and the sexual abuse of minors.
One report found that 65 percent of prostituted women in Iraq were minors.
In 2012, Iraq passed its first law specifically against human trafficking, but the law is routinely ignored and sexual crimes, including rape and trafficking, are just as common there as elsewhere.
Statistics are hard to come by, but in 2011, a survey found that more than 9 percent of respondents between the ages of 15 and 54 said they had been subjected to sexual violence.
The real number is likely much higher, given the shame attached to reporting such crimes in a society where a family’s honor is often tied to the chastity of its women. The victims of these crimes are often considered outcasts and can be killed for “dishonoring” their family or their community.
Prostitution and sex trafficking in the KRG mirrors other places. It is a tangled hierarchy of greed, government looking the other way, corrupt police, poverty, exploitation and a growing modernity that focuses on consumerism.
There are nearly always female pimps/madams involved. At first, this may seem to be counterintuitive, but once you think of the Middle Eastern culture where women are limited in their movement and mixed-gender gatherings are often heavily monitored, it begins to make sense.
Female pimps/madams are an essential part of the sex industry here. Many of the go-betweens that facilitate sex trafficking are often referred to as “aunties.”
Three of the main types of sex work in Kurdistan include:
1. The young, fancy girls who come from outside Kurdistan as part of an arrangement between Kurdish businessmen and foreign merchants. They stay at top hotels, mingle with influential men and have relatively high incomes. As everywhere else in the world, this is a difficult caste for counter-sex trafficking professionals to break into.
- These women are mostly “closed” to the public but can be found and purchased at higher-level night clubs, restaurants and bars.
2. The second group includes both young and more mature women who come to Kurdistan through facilitators and madams. Some of them are Kurds, most of whom have work and residency permits that are organized by their employers. Others come on tourist visas. Their average income during a 15-day period is about $3,000, which of course depends on the girl or woman, and whether she can get a good tip on top of the agreed price.
- These women can easily be identified at night clubs, restaurants, bars and other cafes.
- A sexual encounter with an underage prostitute typically costs $150, with prices decreasing as the girls’ ages rise. A several-hour, nonsexual encounter where a prostitute dances in front of a client costs $200, with sex costing extra.
3. The third group are middle-aged women, generally residents. Their clients are local workers or low-income men from the area.
- These women can be found at local night clubs, bars and cafes but can also be seen engaged in street prostitution.
While we’ve been in the country, even during Ramadan, we found it has not been hard to identify the active sex trade in the KRG. Ramadan slowed things down a bit but much less than you would expect.
As foreigners, we found it particularly challenging to recognize the brothels on a surface level.
Three of the main types of brothels in Kurdistan include:
- Houses in which three to five females are controlled and prostituted seem to be the majority. These houses are known by women’s names. The pimp/madam is usually a woman who has spent most of her life in the sex industry and has grown older. She usually has a male assistant who is ready to beat the females into obedience. The madam sometimes gives out a female for a full-night’s stay at a man’s house, where she may have to serve many men. There is no guarantee that a female can come back from a trip like this. In some reports, women were sold, or rented, and disappeared. Not all these cases meet the legal threshold of trafficking, but most will, if police and judges take the time to build the case. Most of the money collected is taken by the pimp/madam, while the victim is allowed to keep 25-30 percent.
- Family business brothels are part of a sex trade where males and older females procure and prosper by selling their young girls to men in what are called pleasure marriages. Sometimes these bargain sales are repeated two to three times until a girl is older and enrolled into daily prostitution tasks.
- Commercial cover brothels: Many reports connect beauty salons and massage parlors to prostitution, where a female pimp/madam can have a considerable outreach to the neighborhood women. One report stated that As Sulaymaniyah (a city in northeastern KRG) had up to 400 houses, hotels and massage parlors where prostitution was practiced.
Street-based prostitution is practiced in the crowded commercial streets all over Iraq and Kurdistan, but it has not been that obvious to our team, especially when you compare it to what we can easily see at the night clubs, bars and cafes.
Like everywhere else in the world, street prostitution is the most desperate. Street prostitutes deal and bargain with their clients; some of them ask for 25,000 Iraqi dinars IQD or 15,000 (USD $10); some of them settle for only 5,000 IQD (USD $4). Many women report being repeatedly dumped by men on a remote street after sex without payment.
We want to encourage you to check out the Al Jazeera video, “Cracking down on the human trafficking of women in Iraq.” This video corroborates everything that we’ve seen, both in Baghdad and in the KRG. The area highlighted in Baghdad is right near where we usually stay, and the area highlighted in Erbil, Kurdistan, gets as specific as the Masaya Hotel, where we have spent many nights observing this crime in action.
We believe there is a growing industry of sex for sale online. We’ve identified it and are attempting to uncover and track it. We are teaching police how to identify the indicators online and move into the virtual world to start dismantling this crime there.
This growing threat has the potential to overtake every style of prostitution discussed in this report and make it easier to exploit children. We will cover this more in Part 3 of our reporting on Kurdistan.
In Iraq and Kurdistan, if you are looking to buy sex, your best bet is to head straight to the Christian sectors. The Masaya Hotel, Lebanese Village, Ankawa neighborhood and pretty much any area that is known for selling sex in Erbil is a “Christian” neighborhood.
This makes me angry — angry because we, as Christians, should be a place known as a safe refuge for women and children.
Too many people equate religion with sexual abuse.
The video we reference provides two examples of women who went to their mosque for help, met some kind women, and soon found themselves trapped and sold into sex.
I pray that God delivers His justice to any man or woman who uses religion as a cover to manipulate and exploit the vulnerable.
“The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” — Proverbs 15:3