Sameena, 26, had her dreams shattered when, instead of the small house her husband Jameel had promised, she ended up in an Islamabad Rawalpindi brothel in November 2001.
“I was shocked to know that it was not my sweet home and Farida, whom my husband had introduced to me as caretaker, was lady manager,” recalled Sameena in an interview that an NGO conducted into the issue of women trafficking.
Her face, said the interviewer later, betrayed the trauma Sameena has undergone as a prostitute for almost two years.
Sameena’s is not an isolated story; scores of such victims of greedy flesh merchants serve and suffer not only at hundreds of “civilized brothels” – guest houses – inside Pakistan, but also abroad, where young girls and women are taken as nurses and caretakers, but are in fact used as tools for money-minting.
“Pakistan in fact serves as a nation where women are sold and sent to other countries after being brought into it”
Human Rights organisations like the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report that a woman could be bought for no more than rupees 10,000 ($175) in NWFP.
In the Sindh and Punjab provinces, impoverished parents sell daughters as young as 10 to suitors willing to pay their families sums of money ranging from $425 to $4250. They either end up in local brothels, or are taken abroad.
“I have seen young girls being brought back on stretchers from the Gulf, after agonizing experiences at the hands of foreign merry-makers,” says Firyal Ali Gohar, a social activist and a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN’s population fund.
Gohar, who has been focusing on human rights and women’s issues in Pakistan, says unscrupulous traders are using both domestic as well as foreign women to fill up their pockets.
“Pakistan in fact serves as a nation where women are sold and sent to other countries after being brought into it,” says Zia Awan, the head of a Karachi-based Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA).
The survey noticed an increase in recent years in the number of women brought into the country from Bangladesh, Iran and Central Asia, often to serve as sex workers or as bonded domestic labour.
In November 2002, 20 young Iranian girls were repatriated to Iran in a state of trauma after being forced to work in Pakistan as prostitutes.
“These girls had apparently been brought by traffickers from impoverished families in Iran and promised marriage with well-off men in Pakistan,” revealed Kamila Hayat, editor of the monthly magazine of HRCP.
Human rights activists estimate that about 200,000 women and girls between the ages of 12-30 years have been trafficked from Bangladesh to Pakistan in the last 10 years
Areen Parvez, a Bangladeshi woman had been brought to Pakistan 10 years ago by a distant cousin with a promise of marrying her off to a God-fearing landlord, but sold her for $350 instead to someone in the southern Sindh province; the middle-aged man subjected Areen to a decade of rape, torture and bondage.
According to estimates by human rights activists, about 200,000 women and girls between the ages of 12-30 years have been trafficked from Bangladesh to Pakistan in the last 10 years.
Dozens of girls from China and some Central Asian Republics at a few low profile, but exquisite places of entertainment in Islamabad, also point to the flourishing trade in recent years.
Dr Sarah Tirmazi, Country Director Action Aid Pakistan, a British NGO, says trafficking of women and children is a shame for any country.
“There also seemed to be an increase in the trend of kidnapping women for trafficking with several women of the same family sometimes abducted for this purpose and smuggled within the country or abroad,” Tirmazi maintains.
Action Aid runs a counseling office in the red light district of Lahore, capital of the largest Punjab province, particularly to promote awareness on sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and AIDS.
According to a Karachi-based helpline, Madadgar, there have been over 1745 cases of abduction across the country last year.
Afghan girl near the Pakistani
Another issue confronting human rights activists as well as the authorities is the abduction and trafficking of children.
A recent US State Department report classified Pakistan, India and Bangladesh as countries that “do not fully comply with minimum standards to check human trafficking.”
“Pakistan is a main transit point for women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation and bonded labor,” the report said.
“I don’t think this (exploitation of women) will ever come to an end in the Pakistani society where males consider females as their personal property or a trading commodity,” said 31-year-old Sobia Faruq, who was forced into prostitution after her husband abandoned her in favour of another girl.
“I tried my best to find a job but got nothing except ‘dirty looks’. Many people were ready to help me but they wanted to have sex in return,” she said adding that an elderly woman later offered a job of a housekeeper to her, which she accepted.
“But it was trap laid out for me; it was not a house but a brothel, which turned a housewife into a prostitute.” Sobia lives on in the same house with little choice of getting out of the vicious cycle.
“The fact that women and children are placed in the same category as arms and drugs is in itself a flagrant violation of their dignity and rights as human beings”Nazish Brohi,
Action Aid worker
Few would, however, disagree that trafficking and trade in women and children within and outside Pakistan is a primary result of extreme poverty and social norms that treat women as inferior beings.
“The fact that women and children are placed in the same category as arms and drugs is in itself a flagrant violation of their dignity and rights as human beings,” said Nazish Brohi, who also works for Action Aid.
Firyal Ali Gohar is equally bitter about the situation.
“The landed aristocracy, a corrupt and conniving bureaucracy, and a people essentially mired in anti-women conservative culture all combine to put poor women and children at the mercy of unscrupulous traders,” Gohar believes.