Nights are quiet now on Pravda Street. Only a few older women are to be found in Bishkek’s notorious red-light district. They are the mamochki – elsewhere known as “madams,” female pimps. The girls are hidden away, often in taxis parked next to the road.
“There used to be hundreds of girls on the street, now they either hide in cars, or work secretly in saunas or apartments,” says Nailia, a 37-year-old mamochka with 20 years’ experience in the flesh trade.
The change occurred after Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry established a vice squad last year, known formally as the Department for Combating Human Trafficking and Crimes against Public Morality. Authorities contend they are battling criminal networks, not prostitution, which Kyrgyzstan decriminalized in 1998. Yet human rights activists and public health workers say the stepped-up police efforts against sex workers and are making it harder to track sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and ensure the girls’ safety. They want sex work out in the open where it can be better monitored.
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Adriane Lochner is a Bishkek-based writer.