The lawlessness in Iraq allows enforced prostitution to thrive, according to a recent piece that I read in the New Yorker by Rania Abouzeid.

Looking back, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 dismantled the country’s federal and local governments and opened a vacuum for extremists to enter.

The country has never recovered and is perhaps at its weakest civic point since the invasion began, especially since the US army, which arguably acted as the glue/buffer between disparate factions, has mostly left.

Corruption has crippled both Iraq’s army and government, gravely accelerating the spread of ISIS and the hundreds of militias that prowl communities often in collusion with police.

But what does prostitution have to do with this?

According to the New Yorker, most of the militias are funded largely by prostitution. A huge portion of men are in militias. That means that a huge portion of women and children have to be (according to this system) prostituted to generate enough revenue to keep going.

Overall, this diminishes the amount of people who are able to sustain the general peacetime economy of selling groceries and servicing banks and maintaining gardens, which in turn causes the economy to crumble, forcing more people to come under the sway of militias, causing prostitution to play an even more prominent role in daily life.

Throughout the article, Rania rides with a former prostitute who has dedicated her life to helping prostitutes by gathering information from pimps, and her husband Mohammad, a taxi driver, to survey scores of brothels.

At one point she writes:

As we drove away in the taxi, Layla said, “This is our work. That’s how I have to talk to them to get the information I need.” She added, “If they find out what I really do, I will be killed, without any doubt, because behind every pimp are militiamen and corrupt police.” The trafficking situation was the worst it had been in recent years, she said. “Every four or five men now are calling themselves a militia. They can do whatever they want.”
Mohammad said that the country’s woes—“the theft, crime, killing, terrorism”—were all tied to the sex trade. He explained the mind-set of the men involved: “If I get used to this life style, I need to drink, to pay for girls, for rooms, for tips, for trips. That costs money, and I’ll do whatever I need to get paid.”

This is a frightening situation with no easy fixes. The future seems grim when children as young as nine are being used as sex bait and clerics with political authority have drafted bills that “propose legalizing marriage for girls as young as nine, entitling a husband to nonconsensual sex with his wife, and preventing a woman from leaving her home without her husband’s permission…[and] that a husband was not required to financially support his wife if she was either too young or too old to sexually satisfy him.”

The bill has not been passed and perhaps the new government of Haider al-Abadi will never let it see light. I can only hope.

The department tasked with fighting prostitution and other problems in Baghdad has 5 officers, no money to carry out sting operations and struggles to maintain order.

There are some bright spots that offer some hope. Rania highlights a tattered safe house run by the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq embedded in one of the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad. The safe house has sheltered 12 women so far and receives funding from MADRE, an international women’s-rights group.

NGO safe houses are technically illegal outside Kurdistan, but if more of them spread (with the help of overseas funding), then maybe this problem can come under control.

There’s so much that happens within conflict zones that the broader, global public is unaware of.

I knew that Iraq was faltering on nearly every civic front and that the previous Prime Minister was corrupt.

I didn’t know that prostitution was engulfing communities on such a big scale, for a period that could stretch for decades.

Before this problem can be resolved, the government has to be stabilized. Current Prime Minister Al-Abadi is a major improvement over former Prime Minister Maliki, but daunting challenges remain. 

Regardless, prostitution should never be inevitable for girls and women and something has to be done. Maybe providing proper funding for anti-trafficking programs is a good place to start. 


Demand Equity

How prostitution fuels militias in Baghdad

By Joe McCarthy