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Regina Kurbanova and Rimma Ravshanova - both 15-year old girls - live in the Uzbek city of Karshi, the capital of southern Kashkadarya province. The pair, along with a growing number of Uzbek teenagers, work as prostitutes. In February, the police detained them and took them to the sexually transmitted diseases (STD) department of the Kashkadarya provincial STD and skin diseases centre.
"This happens quite often. When the police detain girls involved in prostitution, they bring such girls here," Berdiyar Khodjayarov, the head of the STD department, told IRIN in Karshi. "We provide medical treatment for them if we find symptoms of disease. Unfortunately, when they are released, they continue their so-called activities."
The centre's STD department is strictly monitored, compared to other departments. Patients here are kept under lock and key. Personnel of the dispensary confirmed that patients are reluctant to stay and would often escape as soon as they got a chance.
"We treat only three diseases, including gonorrhoea and syphilis, at the STD department," Farmon Jalilov, the centre's chief doctor, told IRIN. "Usually these diseases affect people between 19 and 40 - those who are at their most sexually active."
Jalilov believes that such diseases are growing in prevalence because preventive measures are not being taken. "The moral aspects of the issue are not our concern. We are doctors and provide treatment to the patients free of charge," he said.
According to official statistics, cases of STDs have increased by 30 percent since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991. "Unemployment is going up, vulnerable parts of the population are not socially protected. And another problem appears - people have been involved in prostitution for ages, but we have never [before] witnessed teenage prostitution," Khodjayarov explained.
The health official also touched on the psychological aspects of the issue. Young people, particularly girls, wished to attract attention to themselves and to dress beautifully and eat well. However, the meagre earnings of their parents were not enough to satisfy their needs, he noted.
Both Regina and Rimma confirmed such arguments. "We are interested in money and only money. I want to live in luxury and I do live in luxury," Regina said. "I am still young, and it is too early for me to think about the future."
Regina's mother earns just US $15 a month, while her 15-year-old daughter can make that sum within an hour. The girls say that each of them makes over $300 per month, while the average monthly salary in the country is no more than $30.
"Unfortunately, the growth of prostitution has become a common thing in our life," Fakhritdin Akhmedov, the head of the moral police of the Karshi interior department, told IRIN. "Some people are driven by poverty; some are driven by the prosperity they live in. The mentalities of such people are different."
Prostitution was on the rise all over the country, he maintained. Some men are not able to support their families and leave them, leaving women with only one way out - prostitution.
The problem is also seen in neighbouring Surkhandarya province where Shakhnoza Samadova, the head of the "Sog'lom Avlod Uchun" (For the Healthy Generation) Fund, a local NGO, told IRIN that even 12-year-old girls were involved in the sex trade.
"They [teenagers] are undergoing a period of transition [from adolescence to adulthood], and they want to look like other normal girls of their age. But nowadays many families find it difficult to get by," she told IRIN.
Some families forced their daughters into prostitution, she maintained, adding that as a result they observed the spread of various diseases.
Most people in Surkhandarya believe that the main causes of the problem were unemployment and socio-economic difficulties in the region.
These particular problems make young people feel hopeless. Laziz Umarov, the youth issues supervisor in the Surkhandarya department of the National Red Crescent Society, said that unemployment poisoned the minds of young people and this was becoming a common problem in society.
"Prostitutes usually do not work in their own regions," Khodjayarov maintained. The case of Regina and Rimma was more of an exception. "We have women from different regions of the country, while our girls go to other regions. Thus, STDs are spread all over the country."
But along with grinding poverty in the region, some experts say that those teenagers who were exposed to violence in their family or came from problematic families with a lack of parental care were potentially prone to be involved in the sex trade. "It is domestic violence that forces many girls to leave their families," Shokhida Jumaeva, the head of the Woman and Health NGO in the Surkhandarya province, said.
"Teenagers from those families, in which fathers are drug-addicts or mothers are alcoholics want to dress well, so they end up in prostitution. The main tragedy is that even 13 to 14-year-old girls become prostitutes," she explained, adding that the oldest female profession "was growing younger". In the past, prostitution was rare, and only 20-25 year-old women practised it.
"My father left my mother and me when I was two years old. My mother married again and delivered twin girls; therefore she was more dedicated to her daughters and husband. I was tired of swallowing their insults so I chose such a way of living," Regina confessed.
Her friend Rimma's family background was similar. "I was tormented in my family," she told IRIN. "My father beat me, pushing me to the wall. He even threw me over his shoulders. Why did he do this to me? For minor things I did. This made me leave home. Now my parents do not care where I live and how I survive."
Although Rimma used to attend a secondary school in Karshi, she quit her studies when she was 14. "I was not interested in school," she said. "I had always been under control, both at school and at home. I was tired of that."
Rimma said that her dream was to become an English language translator, but her cruel fate put a barrier between her and her dream. The teenagers said that they and another friend rent an apartment in one of Karshi's districts, living together and visiting their clients.
"Our clients call us on the telephone, we make a deal and go to visit them. We have day fun and night fun and are paid for that. Next day we expect new acquaintances and new clients," Regina said. "I even do not dream about another work or way of life. I am OK this way."
Meanwhile, Tansika Mamatova, the director of school number 15 in Karshi, said that Rimma used to go to that school until 2002, when her mother withdrew all her documents, saying that their whole family was to move to Russia.
The school director admitted that nowadays it was more difficult to raise teenagers and urged parents not to neglect their offspring. There are 850 pupils in the school, and one problem is that it is a mixed one.
"We have two languages of instruction, and Russian and Uzbek speaking pupils study separately. Russian speaking parents have less control over their children compared to Uzbek parents," Mamatova noted.
Asked to comment on possible solutions to the problem, Akhmedov of the Karshi interior department said: "According to the law, people involved in prostitution are fined. But this is not the solution to the problem, when law-abiding citizens suffer because of that."
Farkhad Bazarov, an entrepreneur from the southern city of Termez, said that it was useless to advise sex workers and that they should be arrested. "This problem is growing and there is a growing generation of women of easy virtue among the youth of Surkhandarya," he said.
Commenting on the issue, Gulshoda Bekmuradova, a psychologist at Najot, a local NGO in Karshi, said that it wouldn't be easy to tackle the problem, given the stigma attached to prostitution. "Society is not always ready to accept them," she said. "This makes it impossible for them to come back to a normal life."
The psychologist believes that prostitutes are indifferent to the problems of life given their nature. They have got used to an easy life, money, everyday fun, which are difficult to give up. "It is no secret that the 20th and 21st centuries have become the centuries of moral impoverishment for the whole of humankind, or in other words, 'the tragedy of the mind'. This is the particular reason why this problem is not solvable. It can be contained on a certain level, but that is not a solution," she said.
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Last updated: October 07, 2010