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It is the first Afghan city to have been connected with another country by rail. Alcohol, though still illegal, can be found without too much trouble. But as much as anything, a business boom has fueled the sex trade in Mazar, local officials and aid workers say. Buildings are springing up across the city, as local and regional companies set up shop. The flourishing of prostitution here casts a glaring light on the contradictions of the male-dominated Afghan society, where even the implication of immorality can mean death for women.
The sex trade has existed in one form or another for decades, even under the ultraconservative rule of the Taliban. But officials here say the rapid spread of mobile technology has made the business easier to manage and harder to detect, allowing prostitution to expand. Corruption is another factor that keeps business booming. Indeed, one of the interviews conducted with a prostitute for this article was coordinated by a police officer who is a client.
The business is conducted in the most secretive ways, and few are willing to talk publicly about it. Almost all of the women involved are driven to desperation by poverty. Prostitutes often wear all-concealing chadors, making it impossible to recognize them, and even the logistics of the business are shadowy. There are few, if any, actual brothels.
Years ago, brothels operated in the open here, typically as hotels, where men could visit without fear of scrutiny. But a few years back, Atta Mohammed Noor, the powerful governor of surrounding Balkh Province, ordered a crackdown. The brothels all but disappeared. In their place, a decentralized network emerged. Women now host clients in a series of apartments across the city, or sometimes in their own homes, according to aid groups and women involved in the sex trade.
The point of contact is typically a man who orchestrates the meet-ups by cellphone. This has made the business tough to infiltrate for those police officials eager to crack down. The deputy chief of police in Mazar, Abdul Razaq Qadiri, threw his hands up when asked about prostitution in the city.