By: Farahnaz Zahidi
LAHORE: Thirty-one-year-old *Kulsoom just got free entertaining her first “client” of the day, and is ready to speak to us. “Paani piyavan thanda?” (Should I serve you some cold water?), she offers, alluding to the tiny refrigerator in the corner with pride, as we feel sweat trickling down our backs, thanks to Lahore’s merciless load-shedding.
“The clients have shrunk drastically in number, due to load-shedding jee. Nobody bothers coming due to the heat. Business is down,” she says, making small talk. This cramped-up eight by 12 feet room in Heera Mandi, Lahore’s infamous red light district, is what she now calls home. The culprit behind this very real story of how a girl-child from rural Punjab ended up as a commercial sex worker is the man who raped her at age 10.
As she starts narrating her life’s story, it is almost 2 pm. The Lahore sun glares down, making her garish make-up and overly bright clothes look even more loud. The layers of cheap face-powder are unable to hide the greyish tinge her skin has developed due to years of substance abuse.
Kulsoom shares that she ran away from her home in a village in Vehari district, and never went back. “I was raped at age ten. I still have clear memories of being violated. I remember my body being very small. He was a distant relative, aged 40 plus,” she recalls. “I never told anyone, not even my parents.”
Even at age ten, she had that sense of shame that surrounds rape survivors in our society. “I kept worrying that everyone would think it was my fault!” she says. Two years later, she was married off to her maternal uncle’s son. The fear that he would find out that she had been raped resulted in her warding off her husband’s attempts at consummating the marriage. “My fear was exposure of the fact that I was not pure,” she says.
When she realised that she could not hold off the inevitable forever, she one day got on a bus to Lahore. She was 12. She landed at the Minar-e-Pakistan, and spent time out in the open, hungry and scared. Two women, domestic helpers, showed empathy. Kulsoom requested them to get her some work. They obliged.
The story that follows is expected. Kulsoom’s face has resigned acceptance as she narrates. “Once raped, whatever follows doesn’t matter, does it? The sahibs in the houses where I worked violated me, more than once,” she says, sharing that every such incident chipped away a bit of her. Kulsoom has also been raped by ex-“clients” in drunken states. “May be this is what I was destined to suffer.”All roads eventually led her to Lahore’s infamous red-light district.
Kulsoom knows that she is in one of the most dangerous professions. “I know I can get beaten or harmed. I know I can acquire sexually transmitted diseases. But I don’t think I can do anything else,” she confesses. While circumstances led her here, could the trauma of rape have anything to do with this? “When a child is sexually abused or raped, they may indulge in risky sexual behaviour, wandering from one intimate relationship to another, because they see this as a way of feeling valuable and approved.
Most of this is unconsciously done,” says Sarah Jafry, counsellor at War Against Rape (WAR). “For victims, it is a lifetime sentence. They are damaged at every level. They need serious and deep therapy to heal.”
While not all child-rape survivors end up where she is, a misplaced sense of shame and sin may accompany. “I pray for myself and for the whole world. But I don’t say my namaz since I left home,” she says, feeling undeserving of the right to pray regularly.
She craves to go back home but she dares not “because my parents are shareef people; if they find out what I have been doing, I will be killed. They don’t even know whether I am alive or dead.”
“I am better off alone,” she convinces herself, but later confesses it is a life of misery without a family. “I cook for myself and eat alone. I cook qeema once a week to treat myself,” she says.
According to data provided by WAR, the average age of rape survivors is 14 years. “In alarming zones like the jurisdiction of the Mobina Town police station in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Karachi, repeated cases of children aged 4 to 7 years being raped and even murdered have surfaced. But nothing is done about it,” shared Sheraz Ahmed, Survivor Support Officer at WAR.