Tahira is one of the 800,000 women sex workers in Pakistan. Now 30, she was forced into the trade when she was only 15 years old.
With her seven-year-old daughter Ishrat, Tahira lives in Heera Mandi, the red light area in the eastern town of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. Their two-roomed apartment is anything but grand, and they share the place with a family of three. She is pleased about living with a family, because there is little security in the neighborhood for a single parent and her child.
Married off at age 13 to a much older man, Tahira was abused by her husband; she ran away, and then met a man she thought she was in love with. "He left me too," she recalls. And her family turned her away, because they wanted her to continue living with her husband. "My only friend at that time was a sex worker who took me in. I travelled with her to Karachi where business was better."
Briefly, she flirted with dreams of getting out of her wretched life, but all she had was a man who wanted her to continue the trade and a daughter to look after. Back in Lahore, she tried working as a domestic help but there too, she was often forced into sex with "the debauched men-folk of those homes".
"There's no way out," says Tahira. "Why then should I not pursue the clients who pay compensation for my services?"
Tahira's story is perhaps not much different from that of many others in the sex trade. According to a recent report by International Human Rights Monitoring (IHRM), a national rights group, the sex trade is thriving in Pakistan.
While adultery, if proven, is punishable under the Islamic laws, the country has a specific law that prohibits prostitution. Under the Suppression of Prostitution Ordinance 1961, running a brothel, enticing or leading a woman or a girl to prostitution and forcing a woman or a girl to have a sexual intercourse with any man are punishable crimes.
The number of sex workers in Pakistan is increasing primarily due to poverty, says IHRM Executive Director Ulfat Kazmi. According to him, more than 100,000 are added to the trade every year. Official estimates say at least 45 million people in a population of 140 million live in abject poverty.
The IHRM report says that "As many as 44 per cent women resort to sex trade due to poverty, 32 per cent by deception, 18 per cent due to coercion, four per cent due to surroundings [born to sex workers] and only 2 per cent are involved in the sex trade at their own will."
On the other hand, the nationwide rights group - the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) - says that trafficking in women is rampant, and that a sizeable number of women forced into the trade are brought into Pakistan from Bangladesh, through India.
The HRCP claims are substantiated by international reports, which say that a number of women are brought into Pakistan from Bangladesh to serve as sex workers or as bonded domestic labor. All this despite the fact that last year, the Pakistani government enacted the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance, envisaging strict punishment for those involved in trafficking, particularly in women and children.
Apart from trafficking specific to the sex trade, the practice of selling women and girls is also widely prevalent. "In Swat (in the North West Frontier province, NWFP), a woman could be bought for no more than Rs 10,000 (1US$=Rs60). In Sindh and Balochistan, the selling of daughters as young as 10 years to suitors willing to pay their families money ranging from Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 was reported," said the HRCP State of Human Rights Report 2002.
What is more alarming is the forced prostitution of boys and girls under 18 years of age, despite a specific provision in the Pakistan Penal Code. This provision makes the transport or import of a girl under-18 for purposes of prostitution an offence, punishable with a 10-year imprisonment or fine or both.
A study by the National Commission for Child Welfare and Development (NCCWD) - never made public because of its controversial findings - reported the prevalence of commercial exploitation of children. "Due to cultural and religious factors, commercial sexual activity is kept underground, but its existence is well known and acknowledged by many sectors of society including law enforcers," said the report.
According to this report, "Girls of families involved in prostitution start selling their bodies at an early age of 11 or 12 years...as in most Asian societies, there is a premium on virginity."
While there are only a few "known" areas for sex trade in the country, like Heera Mandi where Tahira works, the trade is otherwise conducted through a net of connections. "The sex business is also being run under cover of family clinics, maternity centers, marriage bureaus, beauty parlors and guest houses," the IHRM report points out.
Predictably so, sex workers have no recourse to any protection. "I can't approach the police if a client refused to pay after availing my services, because I know I would be exploited, and if I resist, they will take me in for violating one law or the other," says Tahira.
In a country whose people are religiously conservative, civil society organizations cannot raise the issue of the rights and protection of sex workers. According to a World Bank report, commercial sex workers and their clients have insufficient access to information about HIV/AIDS and STDs. Besides, sex workers often lack the power to negotiate safe sex and seek treatment for STDs.
Only recently has some initiative been taken to educate sex workers on contraceptives so as to minimize the risk and spread of STDs. ActionAid Pakistan runs one such counselling centre in Lahore's Heera Mandi.
"The ActionAid centre educated us about personal hygiene and safe sex practices and provided us free condoms. Even if I am doomed to live this life, I feel better off health-wise," says Tahira.