On the five-year anniversary of the start of this stupid, immoral war, Alternet reported that an estimated 50,000 Iraqi women and girls in Syria have been forced into prostitution because as refugees they had no other means of sustenance. As the shock and snickers fade from the Spitzer affair, this comes as a harsh reminder that many, if not most, prostitutes either have no meaningful choice in entering sex work or "choose" it under tightly constrained circumstances.
According to Alternet's source on this, The Independent, many of the clients are Saudis seeking pleasures they can't find at home. A prostitute can earn $60 per evening - equivalent to a month's pay in a factory. As a refugee, she'd be barred from working legally in a factory anyway. Family members not uncommonly pressure or force women and girls - some as young as 13 - to sell their bodies:
Bassam al-Kadi of Syrian Women Observatory says: "Some have been sexually abused in Iraq, but others are being prostituted by fathers and uncles who bring them here under the pretext of protecting them. They are virgins, and they are brought here like an investment and exploited in a very ugly way."The girls enter the clubs where they work fully covered, as modest as any other devout Muslim, and tart themselves up once inside, sometimes aping Girls Gone Wild moves to entice potential customers.
(Source: The Independent)
But the majority of prostituted Iraqis are forced into it not by family but by the threat of starvation, according to a New York Times report published last year. Part of the problem is that a sizable fraction of the 1.2 million Iraqi refuges in Syria have no man in the household; women with no work permit and no work experience thus have no other choice.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security requires all branches of the UN to considered the gendered impacts of war. Prostitution and human trafficking are among the biggest of these (along with rape as a weapon of war). But precisely because the scope of the problem is so huge, the UN's resources are vastly inadequate to addressing the problem. To make things worse, in a number of other war zones UN peacekeepers have themselves become involved in the prostitution trade, as Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf found in the their 2002 UNIFEM report, "Women, War, Peace."
Of course, one could also demand accountability from the entity that created the Iraqi refugee crisis in the first place. But that'd first require ... regime change.
Photo of Damascus Old Town by Flickr user Richard Messenger, used under a Creative Commons license.