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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
AFGHANISTAN: Kabul's Sex Workers Get Organized
Maria Abi-Habib
November 13, 2012
Wall Street Journal (11.09.12)

Prostitutes in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, have organized into an underground self-help network to avoid detection by the state, stop the spread of disease, and identify abusive customers. The world of prostitution by women and men in Afghanistan is hidden, solely known anecdotally through the sex workers themselves. In Afghanistan, adulterers can be stoned to death, and the sexes are exactingly segregated. Sex workers have particular risks in this country where sex education is practically nonexistent, and families generally kill female relatives for acts such as premarital sex. One female prostitute has been visiting beauty salons, often fronts for the prostitution trade, to teach other prostitutes about using condoms and getting tested for STDs. Male prostitutes also are at great risk for violent attacks and have little recourse. According to General Mohammed Zaher, head of the police criminal investigation department, the Kabul police force is “cracking down on crimes” such as alcohol consumption, gambling, sodomy, and prostitution. Convicted prostitutes usually face six-month jail sentences. Though solicitation is illegal, their clients tend not to be arrested. However the sex trade remains busy in Kabul, and is estimated to include 6,000 female and 4,000 male prostitutes, although these numbers are not confirmed. The prostitutes’ self-help group uses a compartmentalized phone tree, in which each person is responsible for notifying an assigned list of people. Within the group, peer educators teach fellow sex workers about condoms and STD prevention. HIV is rare in Afghanistan, and none of the sex workers in the network have tested HIV-positive, according to the doctors who conducted the tests; however, other STDs are a problem, specifically hepatitis C, which is endemic in Afghanistan. Kabul prostitutes distribute literature that emphasizes the risk of contagion with unprotected sex. Their pamphlets also emphasize regular testing. Even the doctors who perform the testing are reluctant participants. They are only being employed because they cannot find other work; they risk the community’s wrath and possible attack if their participation in testing sex workers is discovered.