Strolling through the many parks of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, it is hard not to notice the increasing number of commercial sex workers (CSWs) looking for customers. The majority of women, stamping their feet in the cold to keep warm while trying to make an eye contact with male passers-by, came to the city from rural areas in search of a better life.
An estimated 40 percent of the country’s 5 million people live below the national poverty line, according to national statistics, while in rural areas that rate increases to over 65 percent.
"I came to Bishkek from a village in [the northeastern] Isyk-Kul province, my parents were alcoholics. My husband left me with a child and I needed to work. When you need money to bring up your child you will do anything," 30-year-old Kristina, who has been a sex worker in Bishkek over the past five years, said. "I have to do this because I do not have any other job."
She is not alone in the mountainous Central Asian state, where many women continue to take to the streets of Bishkek and other major cities and towns of the country.
Rife poverty, high unemployment, a lack of education and low salaries are the main driving forces pushing many women to become sex workers, analysts explain, adding that family problems are another contributing factor. While some lack any documents in order to pursue a job or an education.
"I am new in this business. I started to work here about two years ago,” Vika, 27, said. “I have two university diplomas, but I could not get a job because I lost my ID document and still cannot obtain a new one due to bureaucracy. But what am I supposed to do? I need to work," added Vika.
According to Gulnara Kurmanova, a consultant for the local "Tais Plus" NGO, which works on HIV/AIDS prevention among sex workers, there are currently some 2,000 CSWs in Bishkek alone.
“This figure has been the same over the past few years,” she added. Meanwhile, some unofficial reports from the Bishkek police suggest that their actual numbers are more than 3,500 and rising.
The workers suffer from a number of problems but many complain that their biggest difficulty is harassment and abuse from police officers. Upwards of 80 percent of the money they make is paid as bribes to police officers, they say.
"In the past they [police] did not take such big bribes as they do now and our rights were not so violated. They [police] know us in person and stop us in the bazaars, threatening that they will tell everyone we are prostitutes. I am afraid that some of my relatives or friends will find out," said Cholpon, a 26-year-old woman who came to the capital from Osh.
Other sex workers say that they are often subjected to physical violence from the police. "One police officer has been continuously threatening me because I applied to the public prosecutor’s office for protection against his harassment. After that I was beaten by a group of his friends, and now I am afraid to go on the street," Cholpon, another CSW, explained.
"Any person who has police ID or wears a police uniform can do this with us, while we have to keep silent. We have neither rights nor protection though we are still citizens of this country," she lamented.
Meanwhile, health official are increasingly concerned over the rise in the number of new HIV/AIDS cases contracted through sex.
Aigul Ismailova, head of the Kyrgyz AIDS Centre’s epidemiological department, told IRIN that a rise in the number of CSWs was likely to see a jump in the number of HIV/AIDS cases if nothing was done to prevent it.
According to the government Republican AIDS Centre, as of 1 December 2005 over 800 HIV cases had been registered in the country since the early 1990s when the first cases were detected in the former Soviet republic. Of that figure 123 – or some 15 percent - were women.
Of the new HIV cases registered in 2005 almost 20 percent were infected through sex. “If drug users in 2001 made up 90 percent of HIV-infected people, today it is 80 percent,” Ismailova noted.
However, the most worrying trend is that the number of HIV-infected women has been increasing over the past few years and 67 percent of them were infected though sexual intercourse, according to a press release distributed on AIDS day in Bishkek.
"It was anticipated because HIV-positive males have wives or girlfriends," Ismailova maintained.
Yet despite the risks, many women continue in the trade. On a cold winter’s evening, a small group of women gather in low-lit areas near the main road, hoping to earn some money, avoid meeting police and return safely to their homes.