Iranian child victim of prostitution
Date: Thursday, November 29 @ 10:32:20 CST
Topic: Sexual Violence
By Julia Rooke
Reporter, Crossing Continents
Sold into prostitution aged nine, condemned by an Iranian judge to hang
at 18, Leila was saved by a group of human rights activists.
"I was nine years old when my mother started selling me. I did not understand what was happening."
Today Leila is a young woman of 22. For the past two years she has
been cared for by a private home for destitute young women in Tehran,
Omid E Mehr, which means Hope.
"My mother would say: 'Let's go out to buy things, like
chocolates'. She would actually trick me. I was a tiny girl. She just
took me to places."
Leila still finds it difficult to talk about the past. But we know
that the "places" she speaks of are where she was sold for sex and
Leila became the main source of income for a family of five.
The lawyer who eventually saved Leila's life, Shadi Sadr, is a
controversial figure in Iran. Although she was imprisoned earlier this
year for taking part in human rights demonstrations, she is widely
respected and frequently quoted in the press.
A girl is considered one of the first commodities or properties
that can be traded or sold in the eyes of a parent who is poor in Iran
Ms Sadr says Leila's story is not unique.
"A girl is considered one of the first commodities or properties
that can be traded or sold in the eyes of a parent who is poor in
Iran," she says.
Ms Sadr says that, in practice in Iran, under the Islamic penal code a father has enormous power over his own children.
"If a father decides to kill his own child he will not be sentenced
to death, he will only be sent to prison for a couple of years."
Leila lived in Arak, a small town four hours drive south of Tehran
- notorious for criminal behaviour and illegal drugs. Most of Leila's
earnings went on illegal narcotics for her family.
According to the United Nations three quarters of the world's opium
seizures take place in Iran and the authorities acknowledge addiction
is a serious problem.
But there are no such statistics on prostitution. The Director of the Omid E Mehr centre in Tehran says it is a growing problem.
"I have entered many homes in the south of Tehran where young girls
had to go out and sell their bodies to provide for their father's drug
habits," says Eshrat Gholipour.
I have also seen several cases of families chaining their own daughter to the homes to stop them from running away."
Leila's husband began selling her for sex to as many as 15 men each
night. Two months into the marriage, police raided the house and
The husband was sentenced to five years in jail for providing a house for illegal sex.
During the course of the criminal investigation, Leila's brothers
had confessed to raping her. They were flogged. For this Leila was
accused of incest. A crime punishable by death.
Leila was in a women's prison when she heard about her own sentence
from the warder: "I am going to tell you something but please do not be
upset. You are going to be hanged."
Ms Sadr says the judicial system is deeply conservative and unfair.
"These male judges have not had any training about sexual charges.
They all have a chauvinistic point of view and they see the woman as
guilty," she says.
Leila's brothers later retracted their confessions. Ms Sadr took Leila's case to appeal and won.
Earlier this year Ms Sadr defended and won the case of 19-year-old
Nazanine, sentenced to death for killing a man who tried to rape her.
Today she too is a free woman.
There will be so many protests... from the human rights activists
that the judges are under pressure not to issue a death sentence"
According to Amnesty International, 177 people were executed in
Iran last year, of these four were women - this year the number is up
to five. The real figures could be higher as executions are not always
But Ms Sadr and other Iranian lawyers say that constant
human-rights campaigning and publicity is making Iran's judges more
sensitive to public opinion. "There will be so many protests or so much
complaints from the human rights activists that the judges are under
pressure not to issue a death sentence," she says.
Today Leila lives in a small flat with a full-time carer paid for by Ms Sadr and the Omid E Mehr day centre.
When Leila arrived she was illiterate and needed to be taught the basics of life.
"She did not know anything," says Marjaneh Halati, the founder of
Omid E Mehr, "to the point that she did not know that you wear a pad
when you get a period."
Today Leila is learning to read and earning money as a seamstress.
But Ms Halati also knows that by helping girls like Leila - by
boosting their self-esteem and encouraging independence - the centre is
treading a fine line.
"We live in Iran and there are certain rules we have to abide by,
but it does not mean we cannot tell the girls that they are no
different to men. They are individuals," she says.
Today Leila is free and attitudes may slowly be changing. Iran passed its first child protection laws five years ago.
This spring a new bill drafted by human rights lawyers, is expected
to go before Parliament to make prosecutions in child abuse cases
Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4
tells Leila's story on Thursday, November 29 at 1100 GMT, her story
will also be told on the World Service programme Assignment on
Wednesday, December 5 at 0900 GMT.
Leila's interview was recorded by the Iranian filmmaker, Hamid Rahmanian for a forthcoming film about the Omid e Mehr.