She goes by Hinda, but that's not her real name. That's what she's called by the many Iraqi sex traffickers and pimps who contact her several times a week from across the country. They think she is one of them, a peddler of sexual slaves. Little do they know that the stocky auburn-haired woman is an undercover human-rights activist who has been quietly mapping out their murky underworld since 2006.
That underworld is a place where nefarious female pimps hold sway and where impoverished mothers sell their teenage daughters into a sex market that believes females who reach the age of 20 are too old to fetch a good price. The youngest victims, some ages 11 and 12, are sold for as much as $30,000, while others can go for as little as $2,000. "The buying and selling of girls in Iraq, it's like the trade in cattle," Hinda says. "I've seen mothers haggle with agents over the price of their daughters." (See pictures of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.)
The trafficking routes are both local and international, and most often connect to Syria, Jordan and the gulf (primarily the United Arab Emirates). The victims are trafficked either illegally on forged passports or "legally" through forced marriages. A married female, even one as young as 14, raises few suspicions if she's traveling with her "husband." The girls are then divorced upon arrival and put to work. (See Iraq's return to normality.)
Nobody knows exactly how many Iraqi women and children have been sold into sexual slavery since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. There is no official number because of the shadowy nature of the business. Baghdad-based activists like Hinda and others estimate it to be in the tens of thousands. Still, it remains a hidden crime, one that the 2008 U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report says the Iraqi government is not combating. Baghdad, the report says, "offers no protection services to victims of trafficking, reported no efforts to prevent trafficking in persons and does not acknowledge trafficking to be a problem in the country."
While sexual violence has accompanied warfare for millenniums and insecurity always provides opportunities for criminal elements to profit, what is happening in Iraq today reveals how far a once progressive country (relative to its neighbors) has regressed on the issue of women's rights and how ferociously the seams of a traditional Arab society that values female virginity have been ripped apart. Baghdad's Minister of Women's Affairs, Nawal al-Samarraie, resigned last month in protest of the lack of resources provided to her by the government. "The ministry is just an empty post," she told TIME. "Why do I come to the office every day if I don't have any resources?" Yet even al-Samarraie doesn't think sex-trafficking is an issue. "It's limited," she said, adding that she believed the girls involved choose to engage in prostitution.
That's a view that infuriates activists like Yanar Mohammed, who heads the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. "Let me take her to the nightclubs of Damascus and show her [trafficked] women by the thousands," she says. To date, the government has not prosecuted any traffickers. And for the past year it has prevented groups like Mohammed's from visiting women's prisons, where they have previously identified victims, many of whom are jailed for acts committed as a result of being trafficked, such as prostitution or possessing forged documents.
That's where Mohammed's group first saw Atoor several years ago, at the Khadimiya Women's Prison in northern Baghdad. Now 18, Atoor married her 19-year-old sweetheart, a policeman called Bilal, when she was 15. Three months later he was dead, killed during one of the many bloody episodes in Iraq's brutal war. After the obligatory four-month mourning period dictated by Islamic Shari'a law, Atoor's mother and two brothers made it clear that they intended to sell her to a brothel close to their home in western Baghdad, just as they had sold her older twin sisters. Frightened, she told a friend in the police force to raid her home and the nearby brothel. His unit did, and Atoor spent the next two years in prison. She was not charged with anything, but that's how long it took for her to come before a judge and be released. "I wanted to go to prison I didn't want to be sold," she says. "I didn't think it would happen to me. My mother used to spoil me. Yes, she sold my sisters, but she regretted that. I thought that she loved me."
Hinda the activist-investigator also knows what it's like to be betrayed by family and considered human merchandise. Raped at 16, she was disowned by her family and left homeless. In many parts of the Arab world, the stigma of compromised chastity, even if it was stolen, is such that victims are at best outcasts and at worst killed for "dishonoring" their family or community. Desperate and destitute, Hinda turned to prostitution.
Now 33, she is using her knowledge of the industry to infiltrate trafficking rings across the country. She gathers information about the victims, where they are from, how much they're sold for and who is buying them. Most often she poses as a buyer for overseas clients, a cover that enables her to snap pictures of victims and claim that they are for her potential customers. She drags out the negotiations for several days, knowing that the victims are usually sold during that period. Playing a disappointed pimp helps keep her cover intact, she says. She can't rescue the girls, but the hope is that when the government decides to take trafficking seriously, her work and that of others will eventually help prosecute offenders and identify victims. She moves away from each trafficking ring as quickly as she can. To linger would be to invite suspicion.
These days, she says, suspicion is getting harder to avoid. She has been beaten before, by the security guards of pimps who suspect her of encouraging young victims to escape or offering them help. In the past week she has received several death threats, some so frightening and persistent that she penned a farewell letter to her mother. "I'm scared. I'm scared that I'll be killed," she says, wiping away her tears. "But I will not surrender to that fear. If I do, it means I've given up, and I won't do that. I have to work to stop this."