Eighty percent of those working in the sex trade have no other jobs and and have families to support, according to research presented to a governmental working group on October 18.
The study, conducted by Tehran sociologist Dr. Zhaleh Shaditalab and based on a sampling of 289 women, found that poverty and financial difficulties play a key role in driving women to prostitution in Iran.
Shaditalab presented her findings to a working group for Preventing Social Harms organized by the Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokt Molaverdi on October 18, part of a series of meetings organized by the office of Women’s Health and Risky Behavior, which focuses on the sociological, medical and criminal aspects of prostitution.
“We cannot say that women choose prostitution,” US-based Iranian sociologist Nahid Motie told IranWire. “Most of them are forced into it. Unfortunately, no comprehensive study has been done to research why this phenomenon has spread because senior authorities prefer to treat it with silence. But case studies in this field show that poverty and the scarcity of employment opportunities for Iranian women are the most important causes of prostitution in Iran. Since they are totally ignored, these women are not only deprived of a support system but arguably have to deal with a variety of diseases and violence, homelessness and social ostracism.”
According to Dr. Shaditalab’s research, which was also published by the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), most of the women sampled first entered into prostitution when they were around the age of 20. Only six percent were illiterate; the remainder of those surveyed had completed primary, secondary or high school education.
In 2007, an official from Iran’s Welfare Organization put the average age of girls running away from home at between nine and 17 years old. Of course, not all girls who leave home become sex workers — but they are more susceptible to it than young women or girls who stay in the family home. In 2009, Dr. Amanollah Gharaei, head of the Iranian Sociological Society, reported that the situation had worsened. “In recent years the age of prostitutes in Iran has dropped by somewhere between eight and 10 years,” he said. “It has gone down from 20 or 30 years old to between 12 and 18 years old.”
Bad Cultural, Political and Social Policies
Dr. Jalal Ijadi, an Iranian sociology professor at the University of Paris, told IranWire one study had showed that almost 25 percent of Iranian women who had resorted to prostitution did so while they were students. “Unfortunately, research shows that these women start [going into prostitution]at an age much lower than what the published statistics indicate,” he said. “Probably some sex workers start at 12. It is extremely painful to hear that not an insignificant part of young Iranians have fallen victim to bad cultural, political and social policies in recent years.”
“In analyzing this statistical group, we must pay attention to one element that has been ignored,” Ijadi warned. “There are fundamental and substantive differences between men or women who freely choose sex [work] and those who are forced by poverty or are otherwise coerced into prostitution. The two groups must not be viewed the same way — and the statistics given to the media must not be bunched together as the same group of sex workers.”
The reasons behind even younger girls going into prostitution were varied and complex, said Dr. Motie. “In the past, prostitution was localized.” She said prostitution took place in specific neighborhoods, with factors unique to that area determining who was affected and the ages of those involved. “Also, social workers tried to help prostitutes — for example in health and medical areas,” she said. “After the revolution, these neighborhoods were destroyed and the prostitutes were scattered all across the city [Tehran]. Then the average age of prostitutes dropped considerably. Both married and divorced women went into prostitution in significant numbers. New ways of organizing prostitution also emerged, such as trafficking women to neighboring countries for prostitution, offering sexual services by phone, which is managed by older men and women, and prostitutes working the streets on their own and not as a group. Add to this the increase in gangs that run prostitution rings, and using new media and social networks to advertise their goods —something that has been ignored by institutions that claim to fight crime.”
The Addiction Factor
Prostitution in Iran is directly linked to Iran’s growing drug crisis. According to Dr. Minoo Mohraz, a university professor and a specialist in infectious diseases, for every seven women who engage in prostitution to pay for a drug addiction, two are infected by the AIDS virus. Her research, which was also presented at the Women’s Health and Risky Behavior conference on October 18, found that around 80 percent of sex workers with a drug problem go to the home or the workplace of their clients, while the remainder work in the streets. On average, these women have four clients per day, and only 44.1 percent use protection. “Seventy-five percent of prostitutes do not know anything about AIDS,” said Dr. Shaditalab. “And 68 percent of single prostitutes and 75 percent of married prostitutes have never been tested for HIV.”
But surgeons and gynecologists warned that these women are also at risk of contracting other sexually-transmitted diseases. “Besides AIDS, another viral disease that can result from widespread sexual activity is herpes,” Dr. Sima Reza-Zadeh told IranWire. “And then there are bacterial diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.”
“Many men who pursue anonymous sex are likely to have been infected with sexually transmitted diseases,” Reza-Zadeh said. “Catching any venereal disease makes it physically easier for a person to contract another sexually- transmitted disease.”
All three experts IranWire spoke with recommended the same solution to reduce the wide-reaching impact of Iran’s prostitution crisis: Empower sex workers by supporting them financially and offering them education, treatment if they need it, and immunization services. The main responsibility, of course, lies with the government — but they also agreed that civil society organizations could play an effective role in implementing government policies.
There seems to be a consensus on this approach — but government actions fall short. In late October, Habibollah Masoudi-Farid, a high official at the Welfare Organization, told ISNA that prostitutes consistently receive the lowest levels of support when it comes to welfare services. According to the official, the organization’s budget can allocate close to $2,700 for each of these women to ensure they have access to the vital services they need — but in practice this does not happen. As a result, the crisis worsens, and vulnerable women, and society, are at risk.