MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - When 19-year-old Fatima returned to her home in northern Afghanistan after years as a refugee in Iran, she struggled desperately to earn a living.
She briefly found work with an NGO, before being let go, and then spent two months learning how to weave carpets, before the factory shut down and she was again out on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Determined to support her mother, two sisters and young brother, she turned to a profession that has long been practiced the world over but remains deeply suppressed in conservative Afghanistan -- prostitution.
"I had no other way but prostitution," says the pretty teenager, dressed in tight blue jeans with a black veil pulled loosely over her head.
"I get up early in the morning and wander around the city," she said, at first reluctant to discuss her work. "My customers stop me and give me a lift and then we talk about the price," she explains, her face coated in make-up.
Sometimes charging $50 a time, her work is illegal and would bring shame on her family if discovered, but it provides a lifeline she otherwise could not have imagined.
And there is anecdotal evidence, supported by doctors concerned about the potential for the spread of HIV and AIDS, that more and more young women across northern regions of Afghanistan are turning to sex work to escape grinding poverty.
Mohammad Khalid, a doctor who runs an AIDS awareness clinic in Mazar-i-Sharif, says he has seen a rise in infections, although from a very low base, and fears that women working in prostitution are reluctant to come forward to be tested.
"Unfortunately the public is not aware of the risk of HIV infection," he says. "It is very dangerous and these prostitutes will be a major factor in spreading it."
Nasrin, a stylish 24-year-old dressed in a white burqa but wearing fashionable jeans underneath, works as a prostitute in Kunduz, to the east of Mazar-i-Sharif.
She says she was urged by her mother to take up the work as there was no other way for the family to earn a living.
"My father died in the civil war, my mum was a widow and I did not know what she did for work," Nasrin explained. "Later I understood she was a prostitute. One day she encouraged me to have sex with a man who came to our house."
Nasrin said she was ashamed, but felt she had no choice. "I really wanted to be a good lady and live with my husband, but now everyone sees me as a prostitute," she said. "My life is spoiled," she sobbed.
Others are more satisfied with their work, even if they acknowledge it means a normal life is out of the question.
"I am happy with what I am doing," says Nazanin, 23, a long-time prostitute in Mazar-i-Sharif who charges $15 a time.
"On the other hand, I have had enough of this. I really want to live like the others do. But who will marry me?" she asked. While Afghanistan's strict Islamic law forbids prostitution, there are signs the work is taking formal root, with brothels operating in some cities and pimps managing prostitutes. Bribes take care of unwanted police attention.
"I have had my brothel for at least five years," explained a pimp in one northern provincial city, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I have 10 girls here and my customers are trustworthy."
Asked how he operates under Islamic law, he replied: "My brothel is not in the open. It is something only my customers know about. Once police took notice of what I was doing but I paid them a bribe."
For clients, paying for sex gives them easy access to women that they otherwise would not be able to meet or could only have contact with if they were married -- a costly exercise in itself.
"I have sex at least once a week with one of these prostitutes," said Zilgy, a 25-year-old visiting a brothel in Mazar-i-Sharif. "I am their regular customer now. I have their telephone numbers and invite them to many places."
Ahmad Jamshid, aged 27, says he has sex with prostitutes because he cannot afford a wife.
"I am a shopkeeper. If I want to marry a girl, I must have at least $20,000 to marry her. Having sex with a prostitute is the only way that can I meet my expectations," he said.
Women's rights workers are concerned about what they see as a rising tide in sex work but believe it will inevitably continue unless the government does something to tackle poverty.
Malalai Usmani, head of Balkh, a women's rights organization, says more awareness in the public is needed.
"Because of poverty, women are doing this," she said. "It is all because of poverty. The government and other organizations should launch awareness programs to let these women know about the harm caused by prostitution."
Security chiefs and religious leaders are also keen to show that they are clamping down on the world's oldest profession, but they lay the blame squarely on the sex worker, not the customers.
"Prostitution is completely illegal in Islam," said Qari Aziz, a prayer leader in Mazar-i-Sharif. "Those practicing it must be punished very harshly so that they will never do it again."
Editing by Megan Goldin