In their two-room tin-roof house in one of the many shanty towns that dot Lahore, Ilyas and Nasim Masih and their seven daughters, aged three to 15, eke out an existence dependent on Ilyas’s meagre income as a day labourer.
The youngest children play at the feet of their parents, running a small piece of brightly painted wood up and down the floor, pretending it is a car. The children have few other toys and share between them a crude rag doll made by their aunt and a few other odds and ends.
“I have never ridden in a car or any vehicle, but I see them go by on the roads and would love to sit in one,” Selina, aged six, told IRIN. The chances of that happening are small. Ilyas earns on average Rs 3,000 (US$36) a month. “Sometimes people want trenches dug or help to move furniture, and they pay me small amounts to do this. Some days I sit idle. I struggle even to buy a single kilo of `atta’ [wheat flour], which costs Rs 30 [36 US cents], and even that produces just about half a `roti’ [flat bread] for each of us,” he said.
For Ilyas’s family, securing each meal – eaten on the floor around a kerosene oil stove on which Nasim cooks – is an ordeal. “Especially at night, it is painful to hear the children beg for more food. Sometimes they snatch food from each other,” Ilyas said.
Nasim said her neighbours had suggested they sell a child but “I shudder to think what fate my daughter would meet if we resort to this.” She said if they had a son it would be different because they could send him out to work, “but with only girls, we simply don’t know what to do.” The eldest two girls help out in the home and fetch water from a nearby tap, as there is no running water or power in their home. “It is unthinkable I could sell our children, but sometimes I wonder what on earth we are to do,” Ilyas said.
Though Ilyas and Nasim said they would never contemplate selling a child, they know how desperation can dictate actions. “Our cousin who lives just outside Lahore sold a kidney to try and make ends meet,” Ilyas said. “He was sick afterwards and could not work, so he sold his 14-year-old daughter for Rs 50,000 [$600] to a man who said he wanted to marry her. The man was over 50, and after a month he sent the girl out to work as a prostitute. Essentially, this is that man’s business. My cousin knew, but he had no choice.”
Poverty driving child sales: In other cases middlemen go to impoverished families and buy children for slave labour or sex work, said Ilyas.
There are reports that rising poverty is forcing a growing number of families to sell children, with girls in particular ending up in sex work. “We have more and more reports of people selling their children due to poverty,” I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN. Boys were sometimes trafficked outside the country, and girls were generally sold into the sex trade, he said.
According to HRCP, growing unemployment is a big factor contributing to poverty. According to independent estimates, the unemployment rate is 15.2 percent.
Poverty levels have remained persistently high in Pakistan. According to a study completed in February 2010 by economists at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, every second household in the districts of the southern Punjab, comprising 17.49 million people, lives in absolute poverty. The fact that many wage earners have lower skill levels, due to a lack of education, is cited as a key factor in this.
“For households in the north [of Punjab Province], 14.26 percent of their income comes from remittances, which explains their comparative affluence; it is 4.4 percent in the centre [of the province], 2.14 percent in the south and 3.03 percent in the west,” the study says. Punjab is by far the most populous of Pakistan’s four provinces. “Pakistan’s economy has been in recession for some years. Because of political instability and terrorism there is no investment and no growth. This means fewer jobs and other related issues,” economic analyst Sikander Lodhi told IRIN. He also said prices of many items, including food, had risen in response to rising fuel costs.
Social taboos: But this does not stop an average poor family from having many children. Nasim said “social taboos” prevented them from using contraception and keeping their family size smaller so there would be fewer mouths to feed. “It is common for families not to use contraception. Men say going on the pill may make women promiscuous by encouraging them to have sex outside marriage, and they decline to use condoms themselves,” Javeria Ali, a gynaecologist who works at a community clinic in Lahore, told IRIN.
“Married men who buy condoms are sniggered at. Besides, I can’t afford it,” said Ilyas, who is a Christian. “Children are given by God. We should not stop this. It is wrong to do so.” None of their daughters goes to school, as Ilyas said he could not afford books, uniforms or stationery. The parents of girls are by tradition expected to host feasts and when they get married provide a dowry that usually includes electronic gadgets and household items.
“I have no idea what their future will be as I cannot fund their marriages. Even we who are so poor generally spend at least Rs 100,000 ($1,200) on a wedding. We must borrow from neighbours and relatives, and then somehow pay back the debt,” said Ilyas.
Sex work: For brothel owner Farzana Baig (not her real name), her two-storey house in a posh area of Lahore is the end of the road for desperate families wishing to sell their daughters into sex work. She said a number of girls were “sold by parents in rural areas, especially in the southern Punjab”. Often the girls were told they were being sent to the city to work or attend classes. “These people are so poor, they have no choice. To feed their other children, they must sell one or maybe more,” Baig said, adding that some of the girls “are so thin when they arrive I have to feed them for a week so they look healthier and more attractive”.
Though prostitution and child labour in the sex industry are both against the law, Baig houses five to six under-age girls and several older sex workers. “There is a big demand for young girls; we take in those as young as 10. Customers pay well for pre-pubescent children,” she said. “The local cops pose no problems. I pay them off each month.” Sheena Bibi, 36 and widowed when she was only 20, told IRIN that sex work had almost become a tradition in her family due to extreme poverty. “My father was a drug addict and my mother prostituted herself to put food on the table. I did the same for years and today my two teenage daughters work the streets. Now they support us all,” she said. Bibi said she tried to avoid sending her girls out into the streets but to meet the rising cost of food “no other work pays quite as well, and I am too old now to do it myself”.
The girls, aged 13 and 15, approach established customers working in various markets in Lahore, and are paid around Rs 50 [60 US cents] for each encounter, usually carried out in small rooms behind shops. “They don’t like being fondled or touched or having sex, but they are now used to it,” said Bibi. There is scant data on the number of child sex workers in Pakistan. The subject has long been taboo. A 2001 report by the government’s National Commission for Child Welfare and Development was the first official admission that child sex workers exist. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests it is widespread. “During the day I work as a maid, but at night I `serve’ clients. It helps my family, and I can send home more money to them,” said Asiya Bibi, 14, whose parents and four younger siblings are based in a village near Sahiwal in the southern Punjab. irin