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Prostitution in Kazakhstan: abuse and risk

Larisa, Zhenya, and Sasha, along with some advocacy groups, say the only way for them to work safely is to give prostitution an explicitly legal status, similar to that accorded to any other profession. The Almaty-based Women’s Rights Center is pushing for a law that would spell out the status of sex workers, stipulating their rights and obligations.

“Prostitution must be legalized so that we won’t have these problems,” says Sasha, a blonde who sports red glasses. “No one protects us. We have to give money here and there, to pimps. It’s an outrage.”


The women say it is difficult and terrifying to work alone. Sometimes the police conduct raids, taking them to police stations even though they cannot be prosecuted. When the women have problems on the street or with clients, they do not turn to the police, they say.

“If we’re in trouble, we can’t ask police for help,” Zhenya says. “If we reported it to the police, they’d ask who we are and what we want. We have no rights.”

The women say they would prefer to pay taxes than to pay a pimp, the so-called krysha, or someone who provides protection.

Vera Sergunina, director of the Women’s Rights Center, echoes the women’s concerns about their rights and safety. “The situation becomes complicated since commercial sex workers are afraid to defend their rights, they’re afraid that pimps will take revenge on them, [and] they’re afraid of the police.”

Sergunina said no prostitute has ever made a statement to the police complaining that a client beat her or refused to pay for her services.

Opponents of legalization in other countries have argued that legalization helps spur sex trafficking and sexually transmitted diseases while giving a boost to the sex industry. But Sergunina said the profession’s legal limbo has left the door wide open for corruption, with minors often engaging in the trade and sexually transmitted diseases thriving because of the lack of health controls.

Still, Sergunina’s campaign, which has been joined by a group called the Public Committee for the Legalization of Prostitution, enjoys little support in the government or the larger society. Few people want to talk about it, she says.

“The public should realize that something needs to be done because authorities have been unsuccessfully trying to root out prostitution for 70 years. Legalization is the only solution,” Sergunina says. “But lawmakers laugh at the proposal. They think it’s funny to talk about it. We’ve sent several letters to district governments. But it’s difficult to bring up the issue of legalization for discussion.”

Kazakh lawmakers have never discussed the issue, says Mukhtar Tinikeyev, a member of the lower house. He says most MPs would oppose a legalization bill.

“I wouldn’t even bring it up for discussion in the parliament. I think the state has more serious issues to address,” Tinikeyev says.

But Sergunina is not giving up. “We will talk about it everywhere on every occasion. We will shape public opinion,” she vows.


Because being a prostitute is not illegal, the country does not tally the number of sex workers. The Public Committee for the Legalization of Prostitution says there are more than 10,000. The Women’s Rights Center puts the number at 25,000.

The groups’ goals seem a long way off. Kazakhstan is simply not ready to legalize prostitution, says Marat Ajtamagambetov, a senior investigator with the Karaganda regional office of the Interior Ministry.

“Prostitution is legal in countries where the level of legal awareness is higher than in Kazakhstan,” he says. “Brothel owners and prostitutes must abide by laws applicable to them. They must not offer services to minors. They must have regular physical checkups and pay taxes. They must not offer services in unauthorized places. But it’s too early to raise the issue in Kazakhstan. Our people are legally ignorant.”

Other attitudes stand in the way as well.

Although Kazakhstan is a secular democratic state, guaranteeing women the same rights as men to work, hold office, join the army, and run businesses, prostitution is another matter. Many believe sex workers are simply trying to avoid “real” work.

“I don’t think we should spare prostitutes,” a girl named Aliyu wrote recently on one Internet forum. “They’ve chosen their path – nobody forced them to do it. And their talk about needing to earn money does not justify it. They don’t want to work as dishwashers or cleaners. Prostitution is a business for the lazy.”

Ajtamagambetov, in fact, calls for tougher laws against prostitution in order to discourage sex workers. “The problem is that in the Criminal Code, prostitution is not prosecuted. It would be more expedient to classify this activity as a grave crime. Then girls would think of the consequences and whether they should be engaged in prostitution.”


In the face of public hostility to their plight, many have adopted new, more subtle methods, moving from the streets to the pages of local newspapers. A recent issue of the Karaganda-based Novy Vestnik weekly ran 80 ads offering sex services. Karaganda is a city of 450,000 residents.

Most ads carry veiled hints like “A girl for well-off men,” “A cute Asian girl,” “A big-breasted blonde for well-off men,” and “A lioness.” Several ads placed by men offer their services to lonely women. “A man. Entertainment for women,” or “Massage. For women only.”

Such ads skirt the law against soliciting by not explicitly offering sex services. Newspapers further protect themselves by running the proviso: “Advertisers are liable for the content of their ads.”

Ajtamagambetov would like to change that, saying, “I believe it’s necessary to introduce a provision that makes both sex workers and periodicals liable for such ads.”

Zhenya, Sasha, and Larisa doubt that the government will ever legalize prostitution. They note that most Kazakhs are Muslims who condemn prostitution and still view women as inferior to men.

Despite the societal disapproval, Zhenya says, “There will be always a brisk demand for our services. It would be better for the government to benefit [from taxes]. I think it would have a good income.”

Source: TOL - Czech Republic