Karachi: For the girls of Napier Mole Bridge who sell dough-balls to people who come here to feed the fish and birds, every day is a challenge. The bridge is a favourite hangout for hundreds of men and women who visit every evening to have their heart’s desires fulfilled. The belief is that if fish or birds eat their offerings, their wish would be fulfilled. Located next to the Native Jetty bridge, which is not in use, this is a spot for all kinds of activities.
For the girls who sell dough-balls, however, life is more complicated. These girls, some as young as five, brave harassment, abuse, assault and sometimes kidnapping in a bid to earn some money for their families. But the police, who should be watching out, continue to turn a blind eye to their plight with the result that there is no one to protect them when they become targets.
Nine-year-old Mumtaz is one such girl at the Jetty who couldn’t escape a gang of rapists last year. These men pulled her into a van when she ran to close to the vehicle in a bid to sell the occupants some dough-balls. The men, out to have some fun, took Mumtaz to an unknown place where they assaulted her for three consecutive days. They then left her at the bridge with a few hundred rupees and a set of clothes as a “reward” of her “services.”
“I don’t remember how many men there were,” she says though she does remember the pain they had caused her. “Even the doctor couldn’t cure it,” she tells The News. The pain lingers in her back and in her joints even today. Not only was she criminally assaulted, but the sadists who kidnapped her also burnt her with cigarette butts and kicked her when she resisted.
Mumtaz has now left the bridge and works at a warehouse located near her house at Machar Colony. Her parents don’t want her face a similar situation again. But now the danger is faced by Mumtaz’s younger sister, seven-year-old Hadia, who sells dough-balls instead and is exposed to similar threats on the bridge where she works from morning till night.
“The job at the warehouse doesn’t earn me more than Rs140 daily,” she tells The News, adding that this amount is not enough to meet the expenses of the family of nine. Two children of the family suffer thalessemia, a disease that is expensive to treat. In contrast to Mumtaz, Hadia earns Rs500 daily which is direly needed by this poverty-stricken Pakhtuns family right now.
“We have told her not to go anywhere with strangers,” Mumtaz tells of the measures the family has taken to prevent Hadia meeting a similar fate as hers. Mumtaz informs that Hadia has also been provided with a makeshift stall by her father who sells meat, which is fed to the birds on the other side of the bridge “so that she doesn’t run close to moving cars in search of clients.” She has also been told to shout out loud if she senses danger.
These preventive measures however are not enough as visitors at the bridge have varying ways to harass girls which are unavoidable. As Hadia tells The News, a lot of “uncles” grasp her hand or fondle her while making purchases from her stall.
She is also given other propositions by some men. “If I shout,” She says, “they tell people who come to inquire that it I who making an offer of service to them.” Instead of shouting and confronting the harassers, Hadia says she prefers to run away. She knows that in some cases where girls did not run when confronted their attackers, they were injured by a blade, or even had a stone thrown at them.
Also, “they often ask us to pick the money out of their pockets ourselves as they are driving,” tells another girl at the bridge about the clients in cars. She says that when the girls do that, the men take advantage of them. In some instances, this is the manner in which they pull the girls into the car and run away.
Of the girls kidnapped from the bridge some never returned, while among those who did came back, with their hands or legs broken after abuse by their rapists who, in some instances, made them use drugs as well. “Some of the girls also told us that their kidnappers sold their body parts or even their blood,” said one girl.
“The most important thing is to sensitize parents and authorities about abuse face by girls working at this bridge,” says Salamat Bibi from Azad foundation, an NGO working on preventing working street girls in Karachi from being victimized. It is estimated that there are 10,000 girls working on Karachi streets and are exposed to all kinds of abuse.
Salamat Bibi informs that a lot of parents are aware of the harassment at the bridge but they do not take it seriously until their girl is sexually abused or kidnapped. She comments that a sexually abused girl can also contract AIDS apart from the trauma of rape. But the girls keep coming to work as poverty rises in the city.
Despite several interviews of girls who acknowledged the abuse they face, when contacted by The News, DSP Keamari Javed Iqbal Bhatti said he had never received any complaint of sexual harassment or abuse from girls working at the bridge. “I have been there myself a lot of times and I have not noticed anything like that,” he said, adding that he has not received any complaint on the record or off the record of girls being abused on the Native Jetty Bridge either.
Source: The news