Nihal Hassan in Damascus – Women and girls, many alarmingly young, who fled the chaos at home are being further betrayed after reaching ’safety‘ in Syria.
It’s Monday night in a dingy club on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Two dozen girls are moving half-heartedly on the dance floor, lit up by flashing disco lights.
They are dessed in tight jeans, low-cut tops and knee-high boots, but the girls‘ make-up can’t disguise the fact that most are in their mid-teens. It’s a strange sight in a conservative Muslim country, but this is the sex business, and it’s booming as a result of the war in Iraq.
Backstage, the manager sits in his leather chair, doing business. A Saudi client is quoted $500 for one of the girls. Eventually he beats it down to $300. Next door, in a dimly lit room, the next shift of girls arrives, taking off the black all-covering abayasthey wear outside and putting on lipstick and mascara.
To judge from the cars parked outside, the clients come from all over the Gulf region – many are young Saudi men escaping from an even more conservative moral climate. But the Syrian friend who has brought me here tells me that 95 per cent of the girls are Iraqi.
Most are unwilling to talk, but Zahra, an attractive girl with a bare midriff and tattoos, tells me she’s 16. She has been working in this club since fleeing to Syria from Baghdad after the war. She doesn’t like it, she says, „but what can we do? I hope things get better in Iraq, because I miss it. I want to go back, but I have to look after my sister“. Zahra points to a thin, pubescent girl with long black hair, who seems to be dancing quite happily. Aged 13, Nadia started in the club two months ago.
As the girls dance suggestively, allowing their breasts to brush against each other, one winks at a customer. But these girls are not just providing the floor show – they have paid to be here, and they need to pick up a client, or they’ll lose money. If successful, they’ll earn about $60, equivalent to a month’s wages in a factory.
There are more than a million Iraqi refugees in Syria, many are women whose husbands or fathers have been killed. Banned from working legally, they have few options outside the sex trade. No one knows how many end up as prostitutes, but Hana Ibrahim, founder of the Iraqi women’s group Women’s Will, puts the figure at 50,000.
I met Fatima in a block of flats operating informally as a brothel in Saida Zainab, a run-down area with a large Iraqi population. Millions of Shias go there every year, because of the shrine of the prophet Mohamed’s granddaughter. „I came to Syria after my husband was killed, leaving me with two children,“ Fatima tells me. „My aunt asked me to join her here, and my brothers pressured me to go.“ She didn’t realise the work her aunt did, and she would be forced to take up, until she arrived.
Fatima is in her mid-20s, but campaigners say the number of Iraqi children working as prostitutes is high. 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.“