Rising numbers of Iraqi women are being sold into sexual slavery every year because of the waning economy and dire security situation. Human rights organizations are highlighting the plight of Iraqi women and young girls, sometimes as young as twelve, exploited by criminal gangs for profit. "The women trafficking trade is at its height," Houzan Mahmoud, representative abroad of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq said. "There has never been a situation as extreme, and it's frightening. Many of them have been trafficked to neighboring countries like Syria or the Gulf states or trafficked internally inside Iraq from one city to another." The Baghdad Women's Organization estimates that at least 200 Iraqi women are sold into slavery every year, although the US-based Human Rights Watch estimates that the numbers are in the thousands. The organization warns that the figures may be higher if Iraqi refugee women in neighboring countries such as Syria and Lebanon are also counted. "The situation has become much worse since 2003, after the US led invasion of Iraq," Nadya Khalife, a women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa region at Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. "More women have become widows and orphans and have turned to prostitution to simply make ends meet," she said. "There are simply no other alternatives for women who head households to locate other sources of income. In Syria and Lebanon, for instance, Iraqi families have simply exhausted their financial savings and some of these families have forced their own wives and daughters into prostitution." Mahmoud said that since 2003 more than 70% of Iraqis have lost their jobs, a situation compounded by a lack of welfare provisions. "We have more than four million widows in Iraqâ€¦ who will provide for these women?" Mahmoud asked. "The situation created absolute poverty, particularly for women, and these women have virtually no other option but to turn to prostitution." "There's nothing called choice in this," she stressed. "They are either being forced into it because of the economic and political situation or because of a lack of security, whereby women and young girls are being kidnapped." With relatively few rights, the ability of Iraqi women to reintegrate into society after prostitution is limited. The women are often ostracized, attacked by their community and harassed by the authorities with charges of immorality. "These women lack confidence, lose faith in themselves and blame themselves," Mahmoud said. "There are so many women who have been jailed for being involved in prostitution. They don't target the ring leaders for women trafficking - they actually jail the women. If the family finds out, they might kill her, or the neighborhood will shun her and she'll be stigmatized for her whole life." Mahmoud argued that the Iraqi government and political elite have a hand in forcing women into prostitution. "We're talking about party politicians who have numbers of women prostitutes in their mobile phones," she said. "We have to bring this to light. People in the Iraqi parliament and government are basically promoting women's prostitution and they won't be punished. As always, it's the woman paying the price because she's a woman and in that society and political climate, women are victimized everywhere." While human rights organizations were working to expose the practice, Mahmoud said a more holistic approach was required. "The Iraqi government is responsible for the lives and dignity of these women and children, who've been trafficked and forced into prostitution," she said. "The US and UK government [are also responsible] for occupying Iraq and creating such a miserable situation for the population, whose only crime is being Iraqi. They should be blamed and held responsible for this situation whereby people can easily kidnap you and sell you for money. It's absolutely outrageous."