There is a lot of scientific disagreement about the existence of the hymen and the concept of virginity. Regardless of these differences of opinion, this concept should not be a pretext for any restrictions against women. In this article, the word “virginity” has been used to accurately recount what the interviewee, a ‘convicted’ inmate in Qarchak prison, has told Atena Daemi, the interviewer. Thus, the use of the word should not be considered an endorsement of the idea of virginity as physical proof of sexual history by the author, but only an attempt to adhere to the original narrative and to the (traditional) view held by people involved in the process of under-aged girls’ sexual exploitation (sex trafficking gangs and perverted men).
In an interview, Atena Daemi, a children’s rights activist and former political prisoner who was recently released from prison after serving her sentence, told Zamaneh about a member of a child trafficking gang she met in Qarchak prison. These gangs abduct young girls in order to ‘sell their virginity’ at high prices.
Children, as one of the most vulnerable groups in society, are exposed to numerous threats; threats that due to the lack of adequate legal and social protection can easily affect and endanger their lives.
Sexual exploitation and harassment are among the most common forms of child abuse. The story of a little girl who is abducted for a man’s sexual pleasure and, after being assaulted and abused, is left on the street or in a deserted area outside of a big city might sound simultaneously both heart wrenching and far-fetched. But the fact is, between poverty on the one hand and the financial lure of sexual exploitation on the other, such atrocities are lurking under the facades of Iranian cities every day.
Underaged girls – victims of poverty and sex trafficking
Atena Daemi spent seven years in various prisons, including Evin, Qarchak in Varamin, and Lakan prison in Rasht, for advocating civil and human rights, children’s rights and opposing the death penalty. In an interview with Zamaneh, she talks about Qarchak prison and an inmate she met there in 2017; a woman who used to abduct girls to sell their virginity for men’s sexual pleasure.
Despite the law that requires that prisoners are categorized and separated based on the crimes they have committed, Atena Daemi and Golrokh Iraei, another political prisoner, were transferred to the prison nursery in February 2017.
According to Atena Daemi, they were transferred to the nursery so that they could not communicate with other prisoners and they were not even allowed to use the phone, have visitors or go to prison’s workshops or library.
After talking about how female inmates are regularly sexually abused in Qarchak prison by guards, security staff and inspectors, Atena told us the story of a women she met whom everyone despised from the moment she arrived.
“Once a new inmate was brought to our ward and I immediately noticed that everyone hated her. It was the first time I saw all the other inmates hate someone that much… This was strange seeing that all the prisoners were more or less in the same boat. Even a woman whose despicable conduct always upset me hated this newcomer. I noticed the guards talked about her among themselves and everyone spoke ill of her. When I inquired, I found out that this woman used to abduct little girls as young as one to five years old and sold them to men who would take their virginity manually (using their fingers) for the price of two to three million Tomans (at the time).”
After being forcefully transferred to Qarchak prison in February 2017, Golrokh Iraei and Atena Daemi went on a hunger strike. As a result, they would sometimes be taken to the prison hospital and, according to Atena, this was their best chance to communicate with other prisoners. This was also where she got a chance to talk to this woman who was imprisoned for child abuse.
“The woman herself had no compunction over what she did. She said she had four children to feed and she had to make a living. Besides, men seemed to really enjoy this and they were willing to pay for it. She claimed she had a lot of clients and that a lot of people were into such stuff. This was really shocking to me. She even said she had a number of regular clients to whom she had provided girls a few times.”
The woman told Atena Daemi how her business worked and how men from different walks of life were willing to pay large sums of money to ‘deflower’ little girls.
“She said she had clients everywhere, from Tadjrish in the north of Tehran to the city center. Among her clients were also ‘white collar workers and men in suits,’ which I think she meant by that was that even intellectual-looking men would get involved in these kinds of activities. I even remember word got around that one of the judges on her case used to be her client, too.”
This inmate told Atena Daemi that abducting little girls and selling their virginity had become a common practice among some women and that they had even formed their own gangs.
According to Atena, selling the virginity of young girls was only one of the crimes these gangs were involved in. Other common crimes included theft, selling drugs and child labor trafficking.
“Unwanted children were recruited and sold to child labor traffickers. For example, many inmates used high doses of methamphetamine which enhances sexual desire and as a result, they often got pregnant. Since they had no financial support whatsoever, they would commit a felony, like petty theft or physical assault so that they would be given a sentence to serve time in prison, where their child’s birth costs would be taken care of by the prison. After the child was born, they would make a deal right there in the prison to sell it to traffickers.”
At the time (February 2017) the normal sale price for a child was two million Tomans. According to Atena Daemi, some of these women even knew the streets where their children used to work as child laborers and beggars.
According to this inmate, she and the gang she was working for were looking for two kinds of children: those who would be sold to traffickers to become child laborers and those who were abducted to sell their virginity to men for sexual pleasure. Not surprisingly, the fate of the second group was often more dreadful and tragic:
“Girls that were abducted for men’s sexual pleasure would usually be left on the streets after their virginity was taken. She said some of the girls were actually raped and were in really bad shape afterwards. That’s why they would drop them in the deserts around the city and no one knew what would become of them…”
However, the story does not end here. The woman explained some clients ordered girls with specific features and that she would try to find and abduct girls that matched her clients’ preferences.
“Something that was particularly disturbing in her story was that some clients had an appetite for specific types of girls. For example, they wanted them to be blonde, have a bright complexion and so on. She would go search for a girl with these features, abduct her and deliver her to the client.”
Atena Daemi says the prisoner was immediately separated from her and they were not allowed to talk to her much, but what struck Atena as odd and troublesome was this prisoner’s undisturbed and careless attitude towards selling children: “She was contented and didn’t care how much everyone hated her. She kept insisting she had to make a living, and that men were willing to pay for this. You could see clearly that she was disdained by all the other inmates.”
This woman was originally from Eslamshahr and her main occupation was recruiting and selling children to child labor traffickers. According to this inmate, children are bought and sold in different areas around Tehran, such as Robat Karim and its adjacent slums:
“I remember her talking about a heavy vehicles garage in the outskirts of Tehran where children were traded. Children that are sold are afterwards distributed in different areas of the city by a van or a truck every morning for the worst types of labor.”
This woman and the gang she belongs to abducted the little girls in different ways, for instance, when they were playing on the street or on their way to school, and sold their virginity.
“Organized groups distribute child laborers at the main squares and intersections in Tehran,” said General Hossein Rahimi, Tehran’s police chief on April 13, 2022, in an interview with Tasnim News.
He also claimed that identifying and detaining child laborers and those who organize them can be easily done and that they had done so before the New Year’s holidays with the aid of the municipality. He added that “our friends have had no further demands from the police ever since.” It is not clear who the “friends” he was referring to are and what he meant by “demands.”
Indeed, one has to ask, is exploiting children for forced labor not a crime punishable by law and why would the police need to wait for “friends’ demands” to take action?
Online child trafficking
Nowadays, child pornography, child sex abuse material, and child trafficking for different purposes are fast-growing and profitable international businesses that are everywhere on the dark web. Iran’s cyberspace is no exception.
Instagram, currently the most popular platform with the most users among Iranians, has become a common platform for online businesses. Alas, it has also become a platform for auctioning children.
Zamaneh’s investigation showed that various Instagram accounts are engaged in child trafficking. For example, the two accounts shown in the pictures below are active on Instagram as ‘child brokers’.
Not only are these accounts freely advertising their businesses, under every post you can also see comments by men who have expressed their interest and readiness to purchase or adopt the children; men whose true intentions cannot be verified due to the illegal nature of these businesses on Instagram. It is unclear for what purpose these children will be used if they are sold to them.
One of these accounts has invited women who have accidentally and unintentionally gotten pregnant to sell their babies, saying they can get a bid through private message if they are willing to sell. Although these and other similar accounts pretend to support a good cause by giving these children to childless, loving couples who are willing to adopt them, the behavior of the accounts proves their intentions to be otherwise.
Apart from the fact that adopting or fostering a child should be authorized by law and regulated through legal procedures, another red flag is that these accounts don’t include any identifiable names or other personal details and yet the users express their willingness to buy children wherever they are. This is no doubt a completely non-transparent and illegal process, and it is likely that children purchased through these channels may be abused for various purposes, such as forced labor and sexual exploitation.
The way these accounts openly conduct their business on Instagram shows that the authorities have absolutely no interest in addressing the issue.