Walking the street…

Published: October 1, 2010

Women have been forced, lured or trafficked in to prostitution in Pakistan

As I sat in my car stuck in a traffic jam on Zamzama, I noticed two women standing on the pavement.

One appeared to be in her late twenties and the other barely 16 or 17-years-old.  Their high heels, tight tank tops and heavy makeup made them stand out. Both seemed to be waiting for a ride. They kept leaning towards the road giggling at each other. A Civic slowed down as it approached them. As a window rolled down a short conversation took place and the two women got in the car. I realized I had just witnessed two prostitutes getting a client.

For the next hour I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just witnessed. I felt a strangely disgusted and depressed. Prostitution in Pakistan is taboo.  The sex-trade is an open secret although it is officially illegal.

Women involved in prostitution in Pakistan can be divided into three broad categories: those who have been trafficked or lured into the profession, those who were born in this profession, and those women who enter the profession for extra money.  Those born into the profession are ‘schooled’ at home and operate under the management of their mother or an elder female relative.

According to human rights groups, about 200,000 women and children are sold into in the slave trade. Women of Bengali descent are traded most often and 1,500 women are in Pakistani prisons.

The root causes of prostitution in Pakistan are poverty and a dearth of opportunities. When widows find themselves on the street with mouths to feed they feel prostitution offers the only solution. A Pakistani prostitute can earn Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 rupees per day compared to the average monthly income of Rs2,500 rupees for domestic staff or a laborer.

I wondered that night, if prostitution is illegal in Pakistan, why is it so common?

I believe the truth is that in an increasingly materialistic society, values have become skewed, and practices that were once considered taboo no longer bring forth the censure that was once their due.

In many cases, politicians act as procurers in return for political favors such as lucrative ministries while businessmen resort to the practice to clinch business deals. Lahore’s famous red light area comes alive only at night. We all know prostitutes are available there – if it’s illegal why is nothing being done about it? Why cant we educate these women and provide them employment opportunities to put an end to this dark trade?

Now as the scale of the flood crisis worsens the threat of trafficking is growing. According to human rights expert, Dr Tahmina Rashid, human trafficking was already a very real threat before the floods and now, as the monsoon rains threateten to hit southern Pakistan, more people are in danger.


Nojeba Haider

A corporate banker based in Karachi. Nojeba tweets @nojeba.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Farhad

    I think the practice is downright stupid and anyone that has to go that route so as to solicit is a down right loser. However, the top reason prostitution is prevalent here is not a loss of morals but too many being enforced upon a young population. In a conservative family a boy isn’t allowed to be seen with another girl until his wedding night. What do you think he is going to do once his hormones start raging?

    There has to be some science in why societies are more liberal have lower rates of prostitution. Its not rocket science.

    I am all for providing these women with jobs, but to not give them opportunities and to take this livelihood away from him on top of that would be unacceptable I would think.

    I thank the author for the honest portrayal of the facts as they are without any sugar coating. Recommend

  • Waqas

    This issues is a result of so many evils prevalent in our society. Like you mentioned these can be blamed on

    The economic situation, lack of opportunities for individuals to come up in a society.
    The suppression/ Objectification of women. Women are not allowed similar opportunities by many families to hone their skills in a respectable profession which could earn them their bread and butter. Even if they are skilled, objectification of women is always there, sometimes even in highly educated environments that must be one hell of an obstacle in the path of proving ones mantle. To make matters worse, this objectification is precisely the reason women are denied opportunities by their families.

    One could almost say that a woman in our society can only be so independant before infringing upon territories considered taboo.
    Relevant Rant
    We pride ourselves as being superior to other cultures in terms of intergration in our society. Are we really integrated as a society in a good way? Are we not intrusive? Do we not judge other people based on silly pretenses? Just take the example of your own neighborhoods or streets. All the women of the homes know each other very well, very integrated, almost like a feature of a caring loving utopia; but these are the ones that are well integrated in the society, what about the families that differ in anyway (we all must have examples like these, one simple example on the top of my mind is that of the parents living with their daughter’s family). The high and mighty posse of the street ladies would object to that, even if it is in the most subtle of ways, they will not approve, even if it is none of their business. That in my opinion is a result of an obsession with perfection of our society, we do not want to be seen as having any flaws. But every one has flaws, everyone being superior is against the definition of being superior to begin with. We care too much of what others might think. This gives rise to insecurities among people and makes them do things they never thought they would do. This is where the global healer of insecurities comes in, money. An object we believe covers up anything and everything. Hence our obsession with it.
    Relevant Rant.
    Do they help us in making a better society or just create difficulties for people who fight for the betterment of the society. How would people respond to prostitutes being rehabilitated, women with such pasts working among us, socializing with us? Heck many of us dont even like divorced women; we either dont like them or we pity them; bottom line is that we judge. Do we even believe in second chances? Maybe the moral judgements that form these taboos are skewed themselves.

    Just my 2 cents, pardon me if it is a bit extreme.

    I do agree that law enforcement on this matter should be a lot better, but I think that the majority of us already know that our authorities themselves make it possible, just to earn some easy money.Recommend

  • Pseudo

    They were transvestites?Recommend

  • http://meer-mehernewspappar.blogspot.com Meher Zaidi

    Women exploitation and trafficking must end.Women must be provided education, employment and dignified existence as envisaged in Pakistan’s constitution. It is only that we look away from given women basic rights that this menace of exploitation increases.Recommend

  • http://sadaf-fayyaz.blogspot.com/ SadafFayyaz

    yesterday a girl shared her story with me..After that I felt quite low…….She was a banker and paid 15,000….9-9 job….Father is dead, 3 siblings and supporting them now she has started earning 70-80k per month…..She is still a considered as a working lady as her family thinks…..On the wrong path now……didnt get any job………nothing……..except 15000 9-9 bank one……..This is how good girls destroy themselves………..Recommend

  • http://twitter.com/HaroonRiaz Haroon Riaz

    The oldest profession in the world. In the ancient times, it was a good source of state income. Recommend

  • christabel macleod

    What about the men in all this? If women are providing sex then it is because men are looking for it. So the men are either
    – enjoying sex so much they want more
    – they are not Muslim
    – they are non-praticising Muslims (immoral)
    – they are amoral and don’t care where they find sex
    Woman need more of minimal rights such as free compulsory education and men need compulsory education on their moral duties. If they are Muslim they shouldn’t be looking for sex outside of marriage anyway and if they are not Muslim then regualte the sex industry so that no-one is being exploited. If the men are not Muslim then they have not, by procuring a protistute, broken any moral rules and such non-Muslims do exist in Pakistan today. Furthermore if you prosecuted the woman for prostitution instead of the man for attempting to procure a prostitute, a non-Muslim might well question your moral integrity, in which you believe that it is right that only one part of the equation gets charged and the other goes free. For a non-Muslim this might be extremely confronting. Where is the sense of equality and equal blame and equal responsibility?( Do divorced men induce the same ire and revulsion -why not. if a man or woman chose to divorce it may not be what you would approve of however this person has in no way impinged upon your right to practice what you believe and as such they should not be reviled for making what is a personal decision.Recommend

  • zeya bacha

    I appreciate the writer who being a women has highlighted an important issue, which has become a part of our social system, whether we accept it or not.
    In my opinion, prostitution has become a trade since inception of Pakistan. The Lahore’s market mentioned by the author is not new. I would like to add that this issue is as old as is human being itself. Also, this issue will remain part of our society till the time we stop using excuses for the its presence and link it with liberalization. Further, this issue has nothing to do with liberalization and going out of social values, as mentioned by Mr. Farhad in his comments above. The civilizations mentioned by Mr. Farhad have more rates of illegal child birth and prostitution, however, they have legalized the acts, in some manner.

    If we want to get rid of this social and moral issue, we should follow the teachings of Islam in true letter and spirit. How can a male or female go for prostitution if they know how great sin is this? Recommend

  • parvez

    This is a societal issue and I really appreciate the fact that you have treated it as such and not dragged religion into it.Recommend

  • Manish Jain

    These issues exist in both liberal or conservative societies. In fact nothing can bring any solution to it, making it legal or keep it illegal will not make any difference to it.Recommend

  • Waqas

    As discussed, this kind of societal pressure is exactly why many women in our society are forced to live oppressed lives, because of the social stigma attached to being divorced (even if we assume the financial conditions are fine). I still remember an example from my childhood, relating to one of my then best friends, my mom used to be friends with her mom (her mom was a teacher at our school). Having studied from her in earlier grades, I respected her like my own mother. I saw her change (I was quite young, like 9-10 years so I had no idea depression even was), my friend grew bitter and before I knew it was taken out out my school and put into another school.

    Turns out his parents had gotten divorced (my mom told me some years later), she never got remarried. Moved in with her brother’s family and as it turns out, he was pulled out of school due to financial reasons (apparently her brother was already doing her a huge favor by letting her stay there as something like this could have put his family in jeopardy, reasonable? don’t ask me I’m stumped). And the general consensus was that she should have gotten remarried right away, when she was young and “attractive”, for the sake of her child (Still don’t know how the custody thing went down).

    I have always found an aspect of arranged marriage very repulsive, the aspects that manifests it’s self in the form of dowry. It seems like arranged marriage is like walking on a sword, blindfolded, for the brides family (just gives you an idea of how much leverage the groom has, also gives you an idea about the prevalent notion that a woman cannot survive on her own which, sadly, is true in most cases considering the societal circumstances). The sad thing is, all the people exploiting this leverage are either themselves women (who do most of the exploitation, the only reason star plus exists), or men most of whom have sisters and all have mothers.

    P.s. Someone should conduct a sociological study of the popular dramas of star plus and the characters portrayed as villains (what they do and what they don’t). That ought to be very interesting and entertaining.Recommend

  • sajid

    To me the author is too narrow minded. Two women on street with discrete clothing and riding a car with some one who the author doe not know. Now consider that those women were prostitutes. On what basis? circumstances? The car may be send by father / mother / driver may be brother, there are so many loose ends.
    No one just make a sense that these are prostitues. Shame on you writing this article and malign soceity.
    Look broad picture. Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    @ Sajid, One can judge in an instant glance who is who. Ever heard of a term called body language? You think it is broad-mindedness to see your womenfolks wearing high heels, tight tank tops and heavy makeup and keep leaning towards the road giggling at each other. Forget about the clothing, but no respectable woman or girl would give off that kind of vibes while standing on the roadside. Good that you think just TOO positive and clean, but get real man. You typically belong to the lot who just cannot digest reality and prefer all the societal taboos to be brushed under the carpet for the fear that ‘what if my family members read this?’
    You talk about maligning this already crippled society? Name one thing which is not practiced in out very holy society? Be it Gay ism, Lesbianism, child molestation, prostitution, women and child trafficking, all the evils that we accuse the West of, are prevalent in all stratas of our own so-called Islamic society. As a social scientist, I have come across case studies where aunties from good families with husbands living abroad have turn into prostitutes not to make ends meet but solely for the sake of gratifying one’s carnal hunger.
    I appreciate that the writer came up with the issue. A good and objective piece.Recommend

  • Aina

    Its all too much of words from the writer…would she be willing to do anything ptractically to resolve this issue in our society? can she become first drop of water? can she make one of such girls, born in prostitute as her sister in law? I am sure the answer would be a big NO…and if she isn’t willing to do anything practically then there’s no point in such writing it.Recommend

  • marya

    All you over here just tell one thing who have responsibilities and need money where to get it when industries are closing there are no jobs and who have jobs are getting too low income do you people know that in 2007 a sack of flour of 10 kg was worth 450 and today it is 1150 but one who was paid in 2007 rs.10000 now he is paid same or 10500 now tell me how can one take care of all expenses every one should sue-side or rob or do this there is no other solution grocery cant be taken in exchange of moral or ethicist only money can get them and one need food every day and have to maintain class in the eyes of others Recommend

  • marya

    can you give me that banker girls contact i need helpRecommend

  • Syed Muhammad Adil

    Where did you get the ideas that liberal societies have lower rate of prostitution. They just dont have bigoted attitude towards it.Recommend

  • http://www.misshanif.blogspot.com Noor-ul-ain

    There is a strong reason behind everything and behind selecting this profession there is something very terrible Recommend

  • Nobody

    That’s sort of why Islam (and many other religions) encourages marriage at a young age, although in today’s world that seems to be getting more difficult. As for raging hormones, might be news to you but young women/girls have raging hormones too but you don’t see them using that as an excuse to jump in bed with a stranger (well, atleast not all of them). That’s a weak excuse for anyone to solicit sex or justify prostitution….however, I too agree that as abhorrent as I think the sex trade industry is, to abruptly stop it (not even possible) would be taking so many womens’ livelihoods away from them and until society can provide other ways for them to earn a living, not much we can do. Recommend

  • Yousaf

    Still you are unable to give sex education to your kids. Your every young is taught by friends or by watching porn movies. Your sharia compliant education is even not delivered.

    There is every kind of subject covered in your education system, why not this one?

    Your mouths are shut, and you are an afraid society to believe in open talks. I never someone wrote this kind of column/blog in Urdu news papers.Recommend