“I come from a poor family,” shares H*. “My father used to sell vegetables on a push cart and my mother sewed clothes for women in our neighbourhood,” she says as she begins narrating her story. “But even together, both of them could never earn enough to make ends meet.”
She is the eldest of five siblings. “I always tried to be careful. I tried making sure I never behaved in any manner that could be seen as indecent. I would never willingly do anything that could tarnish my family’s reputation and respect,” she says, as tears roll down her cheeks. “But you never know where fate can take you.”
If crippling poverty alone wasn’t a test enough for H and her family, her father contracted a chronic disease that left him bedridden. Even so, H had an intermediate qualification and thought it could land her a job good enough to support her family.
“My father passed away before I could secure any work. Beyond the sadness from loss, it dealt us a severe blow. We didn’t even have enough money for his last rites,” she narrates. “One of my neighbours and a close friend, E* came to our rescue. She gave us Rs 20,000 for the last rituals. Once he was buried, I requested her to arrange a job for me because she was working somewhere and earning well.”
E immediately agreed and said she would take H to her employer, confident that she would be able to help her with a job. The next day as promised, she came to H’s home and asked to accompany her. “I asked permission from my mother, who was earlier strictly against my going out to work but now since we needed the money, she agreed.”
The two of them took a rickshaw to an old house with an iron gate. Upon ringing the doorbell, an elderly woman opened the door and ushered them to the living area. “I was surprised to see the lavishly decorated living area, which was quite in contrast with the exterior of the house”, H recalls.
E made H sit down on a sofa, as an old woman fetched them some water. A woman in her 50s, clad in an expensive suit, came in shortly after. “E asked me to stand up and greet the ‘Madam’. She introduced herself and told me she was in touch with some influential people. E told her about my situation and asked her to arrange a job for me.” The Madam had no qualms save for one: that H take the job she arranged ‘seriously’. “She then turned to me and told me to return next day at 10am.”
H remembers that as she went back, she felt a sense of excitement and relief. “I felt I was lucky. The woman E called Madam seemed nice and kind, and I was so caught up in to moment that I never asked what the job was and what I was supposed to do.”
H also got some financial reprieve before the job even started. “As we got up to leave, the Madam had her maid bring her purse. Despite my attempts to refuse, she insisted I take Rs5,000 as I ‘might need it’,” she shares.
“I took the money and left, and used it to buy some fruit, chicken and other groceries on the way back home. My mother saw the shopping bags and was astonished. ‘What is all this?’ she asked. ‘Where did you get the money for all of this?’”
H gave her mother what she thought at the time was good news. “Your daughter has a job now Amma,” she remembers saying with a touch of pride. Her mother was immediately ecstatic: “Allah has finally heard my prayers,” she said wiping her tears with her dupatta. H says the Madam even dropped by for a visit that evening. The family had a rare feast as the woman reiterated that H ‘show up early’ the next day.
“E and I went there the next morning as we were told and to our surprise, the Madam opened the door herself,” H shares. “She escorted us to the same living room where two men were already seated.” The Madam introduced both of the girls to the men. “Without wasting time, she called her maid and ordered her to show me to her room. Before I could say a word, I was being ushered there.”
Feeling uneasy, H asked the old maid why she had brought her there. “I received no reply and she left closing the door behind her.” H decided to go back to the living room to demand an explanation, but one of the two men entered before she could act. “Don’t worry, feel at home, was what he told me.”
H recalls cursing herself for her naiveté and blind trust. She lunged for the door, but the man stopped her. “He kept saying ‘Why are you afraid of me? I won’t harm you’. Unable to leave the room, I screamed.”
The Madam rushed back in and asked H ‘what the matter was’. “I just want to go back home, I told her. But she told me I couldn’t. Not without ‘finishing the job’. When I protested again, she slapped me hard. ‘You think making money is easy?’”
H was left at the mercy of the stranger. “He did things to me I thought I would never have allowed anyone to do. I don’t know how. After two hours or so, he finally left, leaving me with Rs20,000.”
E and the Madam entered the room shortly after the ordeal. According to H, E knew she had breached her trust. “She couldn’t even look me in the face,” she remembers. “And then the Madam started speaking. She told me that what happened to me happened to both her and E. ‘Come on, compose yourself and come out. I’ll wait,’ she said putting on an air of sympathy.”
As H came out, the Madam hugged her. “She told me this was the only way to support my family. That if I took up a government or private job, I would be doing ‘these same things for free to save it’. And then she told me to return again the next day and stay till 5pm. That the ‘secret of her success’ was that she ran her operation nine to five and that is why no one suspected anything.”
When H returned home, she handed her mother the Rs20,000. “I told her the employer had given me half a month’s salary in advance for domestic expenses. ‘God bless your employer’, she said.” H then confined herself to her room and wept. “I stayed up all night, thinking I would not go back. But then, when morning came, I decided to continue… till something ‘respectable’ came up.”
H asks what else could she have done. What would someone else do in her place? “When you are poor, neither your close relatives and nor friends come forward to help you. I did what I had to, to pull out my family from extreme poverty. As the days went by, I saved good money for them. Being the eldest, I had to look after my mother and siblings.”
A few months into this job, H learnt that her friend E had an accident. “I went to the hospital to see her and her mother told me that she didn’t survive,” H shared. “It sounds horrible. It is horrible. But I remember feeling kind of relieved that a person that knew my secret life and my real identity was no more.”
H still continued the job after E’s death. “With the grace of Allah, I was able to arrange my sister’s marriage into a middle-class family. Everyone believed I worked for an NGO. Life went on and I felt pangs of conscience every now and then, but I told myself I was the reason my family was financially stable. I had two more sisters waiting to be married.”
Eventually though, H was able to dig herself out of exploitation. As she returned home one day, she ran into another neighbour, R*, who runs a beauty salon in the heart of Sukkur. “She asked me what I was doing, and I named a famous NGO that works for women. R told me she knew that woman who ran it and she would put in a good word for me. But I began to panic.”
Breaking down, H confessed her entire ordeal to R. “She listened quietly, holding my hand. But deep down, I felt happy that I was able to share this,” she shares. “R then asked me what I wanted for the future and I told her I needed a respectable job to pull myself out of this filth. She offered me a job at her salon there and then.”
H took R up on the offer immediately. Diligently, she mastered all techniques that she required and proved her mettle. “The Madam called me incessantly. But I never picked up or went back. I changed numbers, just to be safe.”
R, who was sitting with us during this interview, told me that H was not ready to share her story with anyone but that she insisted she do that so that other girls like her learn from it. “There are different types of people in our society. Some are very good and some very bad, therefore we must learn to differentiate between the good and the bad,” she said.
By this time, H had composed herself. She wiped her eyes, looked towards me and said, “Believe me, today after narrating my story to you, I feel much lighter. As if I have rid myself of the sins of my yester years.”
*Names have been withheld to protect identity