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Sold Into Submission: The Horrifying Truth About Why Female Trafficking And Prostitution Are an Epidemic in Iraq

The violence of military occupation and sectarian strife have smashed national institutions, impoverished the population and torn apart families and neighbourhoods
 
 
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 BAGHDAD, Aug 27, 2011 (IPS) - Rania was 16 years old when officials raped her during Saddam Hussein’s 1991 crackdown in Iraq’s Shia south. "My brothers were sentenced to death, and the price to stop this was to offer my body," she says.

Cast out for bringing ‘shame’ to her family, Rania ran away to Baghdad and soon fell into living and working in Baghdad’s red light district.

Prostitution and sex trafficking are epidemic in Iraq, where the violence of military occupation and sectarian strife have smashed national institutions, impoverished the population and torn apart families and neighbourhoods. Over 100,000 civilians have been killed and an estimated 4.4 million Iraqis displaced since 2003.

"Wars and conflicts, wherever they are fought, invariably usher in sickeningly high level of violence against women and girls," Amnesty International states.

Rania worked her way up as a sex trafficker’s deputy, collecting money from clients. "If I had four girls, and about 200 clients a day - it could be about 50 clients for each one of them," she explains.

Sex costs about 100 dollars a session now, Rania says. Many virgin teenage girls are sold for around 5,000 dollars, and trafficked to popular destinations like northern Iraq, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Non-virgins are about half that price.

Girls who run away to escape domestic violence or forced marriage are the most vulnerable prey for men working for pimps in bus stations and taxi stands. Some girls are also sold into marriages by family relatives, only to be handed over to trafficking rings.

Most of Iraq’s sex traffickers are predominantly female, running squalid brothels in neighbourhoods like the decrepit Al-Battaween district in central Baghdad.

Six years ago, a raid by U.S. troops on Rania’s brothel brought her nefarious career to an abrupt end. The prostitutes were charged along with everyone else for abetting terrorism.

Imprisonment changed Rania’s life. While she served time in Baghdad’s Al-Kadimiyah lock-up – where more than half the female inmates serve time for prostitution – a local women’s support group befriended her. Today she works for them as an undercover researcher, drawing on her years of experience and connections to infiltrate brothels throughout Iraq.

"I deal with all these pimps and sex traffickers," Rania says, covered in black, with black, lacquered fingernails and gold bracelets. "I don’t tell them I’m an activist, I tell them I am a sex trafficker. This is the only way for me to get information. If they discover that I’m an activist I get killed."

In one harrowing experience, Rania and two other girls visited a house in Baghdad’s Al-Jihad district, where girls as young as 16 were held to cater exclusively to the U.S. military. The brothel’s owner told Rania that an Iraqi interpreter employed by the Americans served as the go-between, transporting girls to and from the U.S. airport base.

Rania’s co-workers covertly took photos of the captive teenagers with their mobile phones, but were caught. "One girl went crazy," Rania recalls. "She accused us of spying. I don’t know how we escaped," she exclaims. "We had to run away - barefoot!"

Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq enjoyed the highest female literacy rate across the Middle East, and more Iraqi women were employed in skilled professions, like medicine and education, than in any other country in the region.

Twenty years later Iraqi women experience a very different reality. Sharia law increasing dominates everyday life, with issues like marriage, divorce and honour crimes implemented outside of the court system, and adherence to state law.