“I met Haji sahab at a tea-stall near the Pir Wadhai Bus Stand when I was 12. He was a regular there. He asked me if I wanted to work by travelling and exploring the world. I could only say yes and that single word of agreement brought about the beginning of my ‘end’,” is how Saqib*, after seven years of being in the business, reminisced about his first encounter with the man who exposed him to child prostitution.
Saqib is amongst many children who are inducted into the world of underage prostitution, incognisant of the fact that they remain at the wrong end of the bargain. The statistics are imprecise, however, according to Rana Asif Habib, President of Initiator Human Development Foundation, over 150,000 children are working on the streets and approximately 50 per cent of them are involved in child prostitution.
Although child prostitution has become a common phenomenon in the country, conversely, bus stands and surrounding shabby inns are known the most for such activities. Quetta Bus Stand, Pir Wadhai Bus Stand, Faizabad Bus Stand and Karachi Bus Stand near Taj Complex are the names of few famous places that facilitate clientele indulging in such fetishes.
Why bus stands? Manizeh Bano, Director of Sahil — NGO working for the prevention of child abuse and exploitation — said, “Most of the children who become a part of this vicious circle are the ones who runaway from their homes. Poverty, quite evidently, remains one of the most important factors which motivate children to leave the safety of their homes. However, there are several other factors — corporal punishment at school and home ironically superseding all.”
“Most of them leave their towns and cities through buses. The procurers are always on a lookout for such children. They lure the children by providing them with food, clothing and accommodation, and before the child knows it, a client shows up on the door to rape him.”
“Children who retaliate are accused of theft and taken to the police. Procurers act as benefactors and arrange for the bail thus influencing the children to act as guided,” added Bano.
The obvious question is why the municipal authorities and police do not take action against the criminals? However, Bano and Habib emphasised that the nexus of this much organised crime syndicate keeps both the institutions ‘extremely happy’ and serve them regularly with underage children as baits. However, when the pressure to catch the criminals increases, due to media reports or other reasons, the groups relocate and move to other cities where their businesses flourish as usual.
Runaways are certainly not the only victims of child prostitution. Children working as labour, especially truck cleaners, automobile mechanics and waiters also become the target of this heinous crime syndicate. Experts believe that 90 per cent of working children, who are also involved in child prostitution, are male.
The leeches of our society take advantage of innocent children, whereas the weak moral fibres of our own character prompt us to alienate such children further. Non-governmental organisations and samaritans dedicatedly working for the welfare of street children, encounter huge setbacks when the society flags underage prostitutes as social outcasts.
Habib, while narrating his experience said, “It is hard to identify child prostitutes because they simply do not confess and freeing them from the clutches of this menacing evil is even more difficult. We try to help them through counselling sessions, unfortunately 90 per cent of them relapse into their old lifestyles because society refuses to accept them.”
According to Habib even Bait-ul-Maal is reluctant to support underage prostitutes because they are considered “immoral and evil”.
It is important to understand that children can never be immoral. They are what the environment and society teaches them to be. A child born or inducted into prostitution cannot question or fight his adversaries because he/she does not have the strength and authority to do so. They simply are what the society makes them. Flagging children as evil and a lost cause only proves our own moral demise.
Habib’s research signifies that most of the time the true nature of a child prostitutes’ work is unknown to the parents, regardless of which socio-economic group they represent. Bano also endorsed his opinion and said, “Most of these children belong to large families where parents are more concerned about the ‘inflow of money’ rather than the well-being of the several mouths to feed. Nobody questions them and a child, at the end of the day, is only a child. He only sees the happiness that the money brings to everyone and wishes to continue pleasing his so-called patrons.”
Since most underage prostitutes do not use contraceptives, they are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and, according to Habib, have an average life of 25-30 years.
“Since we work with street children, it is most unfortunate and saddening to see that many of the children die younger because of countless reasons including, substance and sexual abuse and diseases,” added Habib.
It is ironical that 36 per cent of Pakistan’s total population constitutes of children under the age of 15, yet, there is no organisation dedicatedly working for the welfare of children on the state level. With countless redundant ministries existing in Government of Pakistan’s portfolio, it is most unfortunate to observe that we do not have a ministry for child protection or a minister for the same.
Lack of accountability and ambiguous legislation motivate many abusers to take advantage of children. It is in the best interest of the country to formulate proper legislation to protect children’s rights and formulate a child protection monitoring bureau in all the provinces.
Children are the future of our society and with so many of them being victimised every day what hope do we have? What are we doing to our future generation?
Kofi Annan former secretary general of United Nations once said, "There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected and that their lives are free from fear."
I yearn to see a society where children’s rights are given its due share of importance. I hope to see the Haji sahabs of the world reprimanded publicly so that nobody dares to ruin the life of children anywhere across the globe and I sincerely hope that the unheard screams of countless underage prostitutes are made heard by people who are willing to bring about and accept the change.
Unless drastic and collective measures are undertaken to address the issues of child exploitation, the evil will continue to thrive and deprive our society from hundreds of beautiful minds.
*Identity concealed for security reasons.