Baghdad, August 13, 2007
When Rana Jalil, 38, lost her husband in an explosion in Baghdad last year, she could never have imagined becoming a prostitute in order to feed her children.
A mother of four, Jalil sought out employment, but job opportunities for women had decreased since the US invasion.
She begged shop owners, office workers and companies to hire her but was treated with what she calls chauvinistic discrimination.
Within weeks of her husband's death, a doctor diagnosed her children with malnutrition.
Fighting tears, she recalled the desperation which led her to the oldest profession: "In the beginning these were the worst days in my life. My husband was the first man I met and slept with, but I didn't have another option … my children were starving."
She left the house in a daze, she recalled, and walked to the nearest market to find someone who would pay her for sex.
She said: "I'm a nice-looking woman and it wasn't difficult to find a client. When we got to the bed I tried to run away … I just couldn't do it, but he hit and raped me. When he paid me afterwards, it was finished for me.
"When I came home with some food I had bought from that money and saw my children screaming of happiness, I discovered that honour is insignificant compared to the hunger of my children."
Iraqi widows desperate
Prior to the US invasion, Iraqi widows, particularly those who lost husbands during the Iran-Iraq war, were provided with compensation and free education for their children. In some cases, they were provided with free homes.
However, no such safety nets currently exist and widows have few resources at their disposal.
According to the non-governmental organisation Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), 15 per cent of Iraqi women widowed by the war have been desperately searching for temporary marriages or prostitution, either for financial support or protection in the midst of sectarian war.
Nuha Salim, the spokesperson for OWFI, told Al Jazeera: "Widows are one of our priorities but their situation is worsening and we are feeling ineffective to cope with this significant problem. Hundreds of women are searching for an easy way to support their loved ones as employers refuse to hire them for fear of extremists' reprisals."
She said the NGO has documented the disappearance of some 4000 women, 20 per cent of whom are under 18, since the March 2003 invasion.
OWFI believes most of the missing women were kidnapped and sold into prostitution outside Iraq.
Although few reliable statistics are available on the total number of widows in Iraq, the ministry of women's affairs says that there are at least 350,000 in Baghdad alone, with more than eight million throughout the country.
As Iraqi families continue to fall on hard times, some have been forced to make the most painful of decisions – selling their daughters.
Abu Ahmed, a handicapped father of five who is himself a widower, sold his daughter Lina to an Iraqi man who came to Iraq to "shop" for sex workers. Abu Ahmed said he could not afford to buy food for his other children.
He told Al Jazeera: "I'm sure that whatever she is, at least she is having food to eat. I have three other girls and a son and what they paid me for Lina is enough to raise the remaining ones."
Abu Ahmed had been initially approached by Shada, the alias of a woman living in Baghdad, who sought young women for Iraqi gangs running prostitution rackets in neighbouring Arab countries.
She told Al Jazeera that her role was to convince young women from impoverished families that a better life awaited them beyond the country's borders.
She said: "Families don't want them and we are helping the girls to survive. We offer them food and housing and about $10 a day if they have had at least two clients."
"Our priority is virgin girls; they can be sold at very expensive prices to Arab millionaires."
Shada said she sleeps in a different house every few nights as armed groups have marked her for trial and assassination.
Escape from Jordan
OWFI's Salim says cases like Lina's have become very common as poverty is increasing in Iraq and desperate families sometimes sell their daughters for less than $500 to traffickers.
But increasingly, young Iraqi women arrive in neighbouring capitals to find that prostitution carries a heavy and dangerous price.
Suha Muhammad, 17, was sold to an Iraqi gang by her mother, herself a prostitute, after her father was killed.
When she arrived in Jordan, she was gang-raped by four men who told her they were teaching her the tricks of the trade.
She told Al Jazeera she had been sold to a gang that caters to VIPs in Syria and was often shuttled to Amman, the Jordanian capital, for high-profile clients.
After six months, she escaped: "I ran away and an Iraqi family helped me by driving me to the immigration department where they helped me get a passport to return to Iraq.
"My aunt is now taking care of me in Baghdad. She never imagined that my mother could sell me, but unfortunately women in Iraq are not important and respected."
Mayada Zuhair, a spokesperson for the Baghdad-based Women's Rights Association (WRA), said Iraqi and Arab NGOs are trying to monitor the trafficking of young women from the war-ravaged country to neighbouring destinations.
She told Al Jazeera: "We are trying to find out the fate of many widows and teenager girls who were trafficked. Unfortunately it is not an easy process and without international support, funding, and resources, we fear more young Iraqi women will be taken abroad to work in the sex trade."
In the meantime, however, prostitution remains the only option for Nirmeen Lattif, a 27-year-old widow who lost her husband in an attack on Shia pilgrims south of Baghdad.
When she turned to her husband's relatives for financial support, they could not afford to help her.
She says she tries not to think of the gravity of what she does or the dishonour it carries in conservative Muslim society.
"I think of my children, only my children; without money we starve in the streets."