The dark dingy lanes, strewn with litter, open sewage lines and dilapidated buildings are no reflection of the grandeur that Lahore’s Shahi Mohallah must have boasted of in bygone days. The sound of azaan resonates through the area as we walk towards the homes of female sex workers.
Some of these women are just performers; others prostitutes. Most of them will do anything for a few bucks. Poverty has taken away the choice to turn down offers. Hierarchies are clearly defined. Ooncha Chet Ram Road is reserved for performances while the Neecha Chet Ram Road has residences of sex workers. There are singing teachers, musicians, pimps, and brothel owners. This area is an ostracised whole, where basic human rights like health and education are often too much to ask for.
Entering into the small, cramped one-room residence of 34-year-old Seema (name changed), all I see is two old charpoys, her two children sitting with their frail and tired looking mother and a TV with a DVD player. This is her home as well as her ‘work place’.
“Since generations, women in my family have done this work. I am doing it too. Even though I earn around 20,000 a month, rents in this area are so high. Plus, 40 per cent of my earning goes to my pimp. I also need to buy good clothes and cosmetics. And mine is a physically taxing job. So I need enough and good food to survive. Medication is the last thing I can afford to spend on,” says Seema. Yet, she vehemently says that, “even if I starve, I will not put myself at risk of contracting STDs or HIV, even if I lose clients.” But has she ever been tested for STDs or HIV? The answer is a straight “No”.
Visiting another building of the area, a broken staircase leads me to the apartment of Zari (name changed). A pretty young girl, Zari is cooking a rice and potato dinner. “I don’t belong to this area,” she says, “Extreme poverty and my husband’s joblessness has led me to take up this profession. Gradually through my work, we saved enough money and today my husband drives a rickshaw,” she says with pride. Then why is she continuing to do this now? “We have children to feed. One bread-winner is not sufficient. But I am not willing to risk my life. I only take clients at home and never go with them. And I say no to them if they are unwilling to practise safe sex,” she explains. — F.Z.M.