In a cramped two-room hut in the slum area of Jhudho town in district Mirpurkhas in Sindh, lives 48-year-old Gulbano* with her three children. Gulbano now works as a maid in a private health unit but she was once a sex-worker and her home now serves as a shelter for homeless women.

Gulbano was a 12-year-old schoolgirl when she was married off to an older man. “As I had lost my mother earlier, it was my father’s wish to see me married while he was still living,” Gulbano begins to tell her remarkable story of misfortune, courage and sacrifice.

One day, when she returned from school, her father asked her dress up as he was expecting some guests. “He also told me to reply ‘yes’ to anything they asked,” she recalls. Later, it broke her heart when he told her that her wedding date had been fixed, and she would not go to school anymore.

Her husband, Qasim*, was a 38-year-old labourer who had divorced his first wife as she couldn’t bear him children.

Too young for domestic responsibilities, it took Gulbano some years to settle down. At 17, she gave birth to her first daughter, three years later to her second, and a year after that to her third one. The fourth child, a son, was born a few years later.

Learning from her experience of working the streets as a sex-worker, one woman decided to set up a shelter for homeless women

When her husband became ill, and couldn’t work anymore, their days of financial hardship began. Gulbano was working as a housemaid when her husband needed hernia surgery.

“It would cost us 300,000 rupees at a hospital in Hyderabad,” she says. “I asked my relatives for help but they refused. Finally, someone told me about Mona*, a well-known, and well-to-do sex-worker in Mirpurkhas. When I asked her for money, she agreed to help, but wanted me to work for her in return. Left with no choice, I agreed to her terms.”

Inside the shelter room in Gulbano’s house | Photos by the writer
Inside the shelter room in Gulbano’s house | Photos by the writer

Qasim recovered from the surgery, but felt weak and spent most of his time in bed until he died, at the age of 55.

It wasn’t long before the neighbours started noticing that Gulbano often left her house alone at night in a private car or a rickshaw, and returned early morning.

“Or maybe a client from a nearby mohallah [neighbourhood] might have spread the word and they figured out that I was a sex-worker,” says Gulbano.

The neighbours started calling her a ‘sinful’ woman and wanted her to leave the ‘respectable’ neighbourhood. They threatened to set her house on fire and, one night, they did.

“A woman from my neighbourhood helped me to get my kids out of the burning house,” she recalls. “After that horrible night, we spent ten days at Mirpurkhas railway station. Being a sex-worker at night didn’t bring in enough money to feed my four children, so I started begging during the day.”

She thought about living with her husband’s brother’s family. But having found out from the neighbours about Gulbano being a sex-worker, they too refused to accept her.

Living in a tent near the main nullah of Jhudho city, she realised that, with the stigma of her being a sex-worker, no one would ever marry her daughters. She often felt suicidal but knew that her children would be on the streets if something happened to her.

This was when Gulbano decided to go back to being a housemaid. Since she wanted enough money to educate her daughters, she was always looking for a better job. Through a couple she worked for, she got her present job with a healthcare unit for a monthly income of 30,000 rupees.

To absolve her confused feelings of guilt and remorse for having been a sex-worker, Gulbano decided to help homeless women in dire situations.

Since 2009, one room in her modest two-room hut is reserved to provide food and shelter to sexually abused women and underage girls who have been victims of social/domestic violence or have escaped from brothels. They can stay as long as it takes them to find suitable income and accommodation, and Gulbano helps them find jobs or reconnect with their families.

“Gulbano looks after me like a mother, and plans to find a groom for me,” says 19-year-old Meena*, a Hindu girl living in Gulbano’s house, who was sold by her husband for 20,000 rupees to a brothel in Naukot town. One night, helped by a co-worker who knew about Gulbano’s shelter, Meena escaped.

“A woman on the local bus turned out to be Gulbano’s colleague from the hospital and told me about the shelter,” says 26-year-old Amna Bibi*, who escaped from her husband after three months of being beaten up daily with a stick. “I have contacted my parents in Punjab, and they will collect me soon.”

Ganga*, another 16-year-old Hindu girl from Umerkot who lives in Gulbano’s home, was sold by a relative to a local brothel, where she contracted a skin disease and was thrown out. Ganga’s parents have disowned her, and Gulbano bears her medical expenses.

“In these backward areas, women, especially young or underage Hindu girls are uneducated and unaware of their rights, and forced into prostitution,” says Najam Nohrio, a social worker in Naukot town. “At least 15 women approached Gulbano. Most have returned to their families, and have either resumed education or are getting married. The government should be doing what Gulbano does for these troubled women.”

Gulbano, who still knows many sex workers in her town and adjacent towns, visited several brothels, and offered to help the girls who didn’t want to be there. “The brothel owners disapproved, but at least the girls know that I’m there if they need me,” she says.

Gulbano’s eldest daughter is now married and lives with her husband. The two younger daughters study in college, while her son works at a motorcycle repair shop in Jhudho town. Gulbano spends a substantial part of her income on homeless women.

“I would like my daughters to become social workers, so that they can continue my work of helping people,” says Gulbano. And at last, there is a smile on her face.

**Name changed to protect privacy*

The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @mabas_khaskheli)

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 23rd, 2022

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