EDITOR'S NOTE: The prostitutes in this story are not named to protect them. Girls and women in Afghanistan accused of prostitution or adultery can be killed by their families or imprisoned.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The girl was 11 when she was molested by a man with no legs. He paid her $5.
And that was how she started selling sex.
Afghanistan is one of the world's most conservative countries, yet its sex trade appears to be thriving. Sex is sold most obviously at brothels full of women from China who serve both Afghans and foreigners. Far more controversial are Afghan prostitutes, who stay underground in a society that pretends they don't exist.
Customs meant to keep women "pure" have not stopped prostitution. Girls are expected to remain virgins until their wedding nights, so some prostitutes have only anal sex.
Police make two to three prostitution arrests each week, according to Zia ul-Haq, the chief investigator in the Interior Ministry's department of sexual crimes. They are often the casualties of nearly three decades of brutal war and a grinding poverty that forces most Afghans to live on less than $1 a day.
"Prostitution is in every country that has poverty, and it exists in Afghanistan," says women's rights activist Orzala Ashraf. "But society has black glasses and ignores these problems. Tradition is honor, and if we talk about these taboos, then we break tradition."
The girl is now 13, and her features have just sharpened into striking beauty. She speaks four languages — the local languages of Pashtu and Dari, the Urdu she picked up as a refugee in Pakistan and the English she learned in a $2.40-a-month course she pays for herself in Kabul. She is the breadwinner in her family of 10.
She does not know what a condom is. She has not heard of AIDS.
Her story begins in Pakistan
The Associated Press learned her story in a dozen meetings over four months, as well as interviews with police and aid workers. For months she insisted she was a "good girl" — a virgin. But in March, she confessed to having anal sex with men for years, starting with the legless beggar.
She looked down as she spoke, her face and hands sooty from car exhaust. She tucked her hair repeatedly under her head scarf.
The girl grew up in Pakistan, where her family fled during a bloody civil war in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. She cleaned cars for money.
Five years ago, her family and a flood of other refugees returned to Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime. But her father could earn only $40 a month doing various odd jobs.
So she sold chewing gum and newspapers and cleaned car windows in the muddy, potholed streets of Kabul. She made about $3 a day.
Uncle Lang is a nickname that literally means Uncle Legless.
Uncle Lang was a land mine victim. When the girl and a friend brought him tea and food, he forced himself upon them, police say.
"I didn't know anything about sex," she says. "But it happened."
It's hard to know how many other women in Afghanistan are prostitutes because of the extreme secrecy around the issue. A University of Manitoba report last September estimated about 900 female sex workers in Kabul.
A 2005 report by the German aid group Ora International drew data from 122 female sex workers, of whom less than 1 percent knew about AIDS. The youngest was 14.
Prostitutes in Afghanistan include scores of Chinese women serving Western customers who work for security firms, companies and aid groups in Afghanistan. Many of the women say they were tricked into the trade by middlemen who promised them respectable jobs, but Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal, head of Kabul's criminal investigations, denies this, saying: "They come here of their own will."
Shame of prostitution
"In our culture, it is very, very bad," said Soraya Sobhrang, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commissioner for women's affairs.
Under the Afghan penal code, prostitution is often considered adultery, which is punishable by five to 15 years in prison. Under Islamic law, married prostitutes can be stoned to death.
Some prostitutes are forced into the sex trade by their families. The Ora report said 39 percent of the sex workers interviewed found clients through their relatives — including 17 percent through their mothers and 15 percent through their husbands.
For many girls, there is little recourse.
"They think that if they tell us the truth, we will return them to their families, and their families will kill them, or that we will send them to an institution and they will be put in prison," says Jamila Ghairat of the aid organization Women for Afghan Women. "The girls are afraid of their families, the government and everyone."
In some cases, it is families that pimp out the girls. At one family-run brothel, the oldest girl was a 15-year-old, orphaned when her parents died in rocket attacks in Kabul. A relative had married her off to a 9-year-old boy whose father was a pimp. She ran away three times, but each time her father-in-law bribed police to bring her back. She finally escaped to the human rights commission.
Makeshift brothels exist all over Kabul, but they are always moving, says Esmatullah Nekzad, a policeman formerly with the force's Department of Moral Crimes. The clients are mostly Afghan men.
"Most Afghan men have this hobby — young men from about 16 to 30 years of age," says Nekzad. "You go, you take their phone number, then you tell your friends. It's all by telephone."
In search of the girl
The girls stay in one place for anything from five days to three months, until neighbors learn of their business.
That's what happened with the girl Uncle Lang raped. In November, he trafficked her and several others to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to beg and sell sex. Within days the neighbors became suspicious and tipped off police.
Police raided the place and arrested the prostitutes. Uncle Lang fled.
For a few weeks, the girl went daily to a women's aid organization. She arrived in the morning, worked in the kitchen and had an hour of counseling every day. She left at 4 p.m.
Her hands became clean and soft. She was happier. She started praying to ask Allah forgiveness for her sins.
At first she said her family did not know she was selling sex, and her mother would kill her. But during the counseling sessions, she let it slip that her parents encouraged her to work with Uncle Lang. When she stopped seeing him, they sent her 10-year-old brother instead.
One day, an aid worker spotted her with Uncle Lang on a popular street lined with kebab and ice cream shops.
The aid worker confronted her. A day later, the girl stopped going to the organization.
She has not been seen or heard from since.
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