ISLAMABAD: Poverty is the major reason people get into prostitution, said Aleem Baig, President of Gender Reproductive Health Forum. A survey conducted by the organisation in 2002 revealed that there were around 20,000 sex workers active in Islamabad, with private businesses operating in almost every sector of the city.
“A few months ago, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani promised that sex workers will be given jobs and a monthly stipend of Rs2500, but that has not happened to date,” said Baig.
Advisor to Prime Minister on Women Development, Yasmeen Rehman, said that being an Islamic state, the government wanted to abolish prostitution from the country, however, “Nothing can be done unless they [sex workers] approach the government and demand their rights collectively”.
The 28-year-old dancer and sex worker Shehla told the Express Tribune that all she wanted to do was to quit and lead a normal life, but could not afford to. “My past is my curse; I have no way out,” she said as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
“The issue of sex workers in Pakistan is a taboo and has never been discussed openly,” said Executive Director for Women’s Organization for Rights and Development Aqsa Khan.
“Since Pakistan’s inception, no NGO or government organization has worked for the rights and rehabilitation of sex workers; they are only taken into consideration when talking about HIV/AIDS,” she accused.
Khan said Islamabad sees its fair share of prostitution but most of it is carried out in secret. She added that although the trend of “red-light sex workers” was decreasing, the sex business had found a new ally for itself in the internet.
Shehla, originally from Bhawalpur, came to Islamabad after her marriage. But happy her marriage was not, as she was forced to live alongside a man who cheated on her and abused her. When the police raided their house and found drugs that her husband used to peddle on streets, she was taken into custody alongside him. She was convicted and sent to prison.
It was her sister, Noor, who contacted her after her sentence and took her to a house. It was here that Shehla was introduced to prostitution for the first time. “What else could I have done? My family left me, my husband cheated on me, I had no place to go and no money,” she said in her defence.
Noor, her sister, has a story of her own to tell. Narrating her ordeal, Noor said she came to Islamabad to earn an “honest living”.
Discouraged by the lack of jobs, one of her friends introduced her to a female sex worker known as “Aunty”, who hired her as a dancer.
While performing in a dance club, a nephew of a well-known politician fell in love with her and the two got married. “After my marriage I left dancing, but his family did not accept me. Soon afterwards my husband left me, leaving me with no other option but to resort to prostitution,” said Noor.
Another sex worker, Jiya, wanted to be a model but ended up becoming a club dancer.
She was originally from Multan and came to Islamabad to get married. Her husband, who used to arrange her dance shows, later forced her into prostitution to boost the ‘family income’.
“When I got pregnant, my husband insisted I get an abortion, which I refused,” said Jiya. Her husband abandoned her when she was unable to dance in her pregnant state.
After her son’s birth, her financial conditions forced her to resume prostitution, which has taken its toll on her mental health, as she suffers from deep bouts of depression. “All I wanted was a decent life and a small family,” she sobbed as she recalled the circumstances that forced her into prostitution.
Naina, a graduate, was forced into prostitution after her husband died, leaving her to provide for their four children and her frail father-and-law.
“I wanted to get a job. I tried my luck everywhere,” she said. But her deteriorating financial conditions got the better of her. “My children and father-in-law do not know that I work as a sex worker. I told them I work at a parlour,” Naina told The Express Tribune. Names of the sex workers have been changed to protect their identity
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2010.