Rape and other forms of sexual exploitation have become expected tools of warfare. For centuries, rape continues to symbolize the ultimate destruction of society by its impact on the family unit. Unfortunately, this ritualistic act almost goes unquestioned as an expected byproduct of war. For many of us, we pause to reflect on the crimes committed, but can easily put it aside in our minds if associated with an active conflict zone. Only within the past two decades, an increasing amount of attention has been paid by peace-keeping operations to provide services to individuals that are victimized. This also raises concerns since many peace-keepers have also sexually assaulted women during peace-keeping (Bastick, et al., 2007). However, for many, such as those affected by the conflict in Kashmir, sexual exploitation does not end with a simple truce or an interim in fighting. Rather, the conditions created by conflicts propel and exacerbate circumstances that make sex work one of the few options for income, especially among adolescent youth.
According to an article written by Aliya Bashir for the Women News Network titled Sex Workers: Victims or Victimless Members of India’s Society?, Justice Bashir Ahmad Kirmani, a retired judge from the Jammu Kashmir High Court reported that more than 25,000 Kashmiri girls are working as prostitutes in Srinagar, a major city of Kashmir. This represents a conservative estimate since sex workers opt not to identify or report themselves. Some girls, including minors, are black mailed and coerced into joining the sex trade as demonstrated by the major sex scandal uncovered in 2006. For others, sex work may be their only option. The driving factor behind the decision to work as a sex worker remains primarily economic. The ongoing violence in Kashmir has brought displacement, poverty, exclusion, and a lack of opportunity for women in the area. Many girls were forced to become child soldiers or concubines for military forces in the 1990s. These girls have grown up, and as women, struggle to find better financial opportunities for themselves. Due to the conflict, many of these women are the only heads of households, placing pressures on children to help their mothers financially (Bashir, 2012). It also creates opportunities for human traffickers to lure children seeking to help their mothers into the business with false promises of money.
There has been little research to document the experiences and the number of single women forced into the sex trade as a means of survival after losing male family members to the ongoing conflict. However, investigative journalistic pieces can shed light on the issue through personal narratives. For example, Bashir discusses the story of Heena, an 18 year old Kashmiri girl that turned to sex work to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments. At the time, a pimp provided her with the money she needed in exchange for being a call girl. Seven years later, Heena is still involved in the sex trade, unable to escape, yet keeps her profession hidden from her mother due to cultural stigma. Another example is Shaista Begum, a 35 year old woman who started selling sex as a means to buy food for her family. Begum admits that she would never have thought that she would work in the sex trade, but because she is illiterate, job opportunities were scarce (Nizami, 2012).
The stories of Begum and Heena are only two voices from among thousands in similar situations. More attention needs to be paid to the push factors involved in increasing women’s participation in sex work as a means for survival, especially in conflict zones where exclusion, poverty, and loss of male family members makes women more vulnerable to pull factors such as pimps and traffickers, and the opportunity to make money.
Bashir, Aliya (2012). Sex Workers: Victims or Victimless Members of India’s Society? Women News Network. http://womennewsnetwork.net/2012/07/03/kashmir-india-sex-workers-victims-victimless/2/
Bastick, M., Grimm, K., & Kunz, R. (2007). Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
Nizami, Salman (2012). Kashmiri Women and the Sex Trade. Daily Times.