Prostitution on the rise

Poverty remains the driving-force behind rising levels of prostitution in the energy-rich state of Turkmenistan, where upwards of 44 percent of the country's population reportedly lives on less than US $2 per day.

"For a certain part of the female population who are unemployed, prostitution is the only means to provide for themselves and their families," Farid Tuhbatulin, chairman of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights group (TI), said. "Never before have so many women and even under-age schoolgirls worked the streets or gathered in special places, offering sexual services."

"There is an unprecedented situation in Turkmenistan when [some] husbands, fathers and brothers push their wives, daughters and sisters into illegal ways, including prostitution, because they don't have a job and means to get by," Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), said from the Bulgarian city of Varna.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the country's subsequent independence, prostitution has continued to flourish during a time Turkmen president for life Sapamurat Niyazov would prefer to refer to as the his country's 'golden age', Tuhbatulin added.

But far from golden, much of Turkmenistan is impoverished, despite the country's vast and promising energy resources.

Turkmenistan possesses the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves within a singular national boundary, with estimates of the total gas resource base as high as 535 trillion cu feet and significant oil reserves.

Yet according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an estimated 60 percent of the country's inhabitants were unemployed in 2004, with 58 percent living below the poverty line one year earlier. The country's economic statistics were state secrets, with GDP and other figures subject to wide margins of error, a CIA report has stated.

Such facts provide fertile ground for a number of social ills, including both prostitution and drug addiction, both of which continue to grip the Central Asian state of 5 million.

Economic deprivation in the northern province of Dashoguz made the area particularly fertile ground for prostitution.

"There is almost no industry there, so unemployment is high," the report maintained, noting Niyazov had raised the issue of levels of prostitution on a visit there, but declined to discuss the matter further publicly – a common strategy in a country that officially has no problems.

However, prostitution as a business has reportedly expanded in the Dashoguz region with rich (by local standards) Turkish truck drivers coming to the area for cotton fibre.

"The trucks parked on the eastern outskirts of the city were visited at night by 14 to 16-year-old girls and women of around 30 years," the report claimed. "Residents of local housing blocks said that if they went out on the balcony early in the morning, around 5 am, 'night butterflies' could often be seen leaving the truck cabins and the parking lot as if they were returning home from a night shift," it explained, adding many of these women were earning money to support their families and siblings.

Even more disturbing, the report alleged that parents had taken to selling their daughters and setting up brothels in their homes in this otherwise traditional society.

"For many women it is an act of despair to resort to selling themselves or their teenage daughter," the report said, adding in some places there were homes where the parents functioned as the child's pimp.

Such reports are not new, despite government efforts to stifle them.

According to an earlier report by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Turkmenistan faced a sexual health crisis as increasing numbers of young women moved into prostitution in order to make a living in the poverty-stricken republic. The drug abuse associated with prostitution and lack of awareness about disease prevention - particularly with regard to HIV and AIDS infection - was leading analysts to voice grave concern.

Heroin smuggled from neighbouring Afghanistan, a major opium producer, has become easily available in Turkmenistan, and is increasingly linked with prostitution.

"The sight of minors offering sex to feed their drugs habit is seen as symptomatic of the country's many problems and is particularly shocking in a society where conservative values have traditionally held firm. Many families - which are often large here - are putting their younger daughters on the street in order to feed their other children," the IWPR report said.

Meanwhile, asked what the authorities were doing to mitigate the problem, Begmedova of the THF maintained that instead of creating jobs, establishing higher education institutions and developing social infrastructure and rural economy, they restricted all women under the age of 35 from flying to Turkey or United Arab Emirates (UAE) - accusing them of being prostitutes.