Covid-19 And Life On The Margins: Pakistan’s Sex Workers Have Nobody To Ask For Help
Thirty-year-old Parveen (identity protected) has been living for the past five years in a private housing society of Rawalpindi with her friends. She is a sex worker who made her way to Rawalpindi from a smaller trading town. Her parents were ill and her two parents had married, living their separate lives.
She spent six months struggling in the urban sprawl of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, working as a telephone operator in a private organization and making Rs. 10,000 a month. With this paltry income, it was impossible for her to support herself in Rawalpindi, let alone assist her ailing parents. As her situation worsened, she decided to take up sex work. She began finding clients through social media.
Parveen recalls that on Facebook, in the beginning, every one of them told her that they loved her, but soon they would reveal their true motives. It always came down to the body. But she does not hold this against them. “I was the captive of my poverty and they of their lust. We were both right in our own ways. I never felt offended nor hated them. If I had refused their advances, they would never have asked me to show them my body. They were struggling against lust and I was fighting my poverty.”
She began by video calls in which clients would ask her to show various parts of her body, and she would charge them accordingly. Before she knew it, she was involved full-time in sex work. When a client came to pick her up, she would wait at some distance from her hostel so that nobody suspected she was a sex worker.
As time went by, through social media and other means of networking, Parveen got to know many others whose stories were close to her own. Some had moved to Islamabad from other cities and lacked the money to buy expensive things – and so, due to a sense of deprivation, opted for this route of making money. She and others took up a rented home to work from, but within 3 months the neighbours became suspicious of them and forced them to leave.
With their influence and resources growing, they were able to move to a more posh part of the city. Whenever her parents asked her what she was doing, she told them that she was teaching at a school during the day and offering private tuition classes in the evening. “If I had told them that I was a sex worker, their heart would have burst from grief.”
Parveen lets out a long sigh. “In any case, two years ago, they passed away.”
Eventually, Parveen came to operate a group of some 25 girls. If they went with a client for a few hours, they would charge Rs. 5,000 – out of which they would get to keep Rs. 3,000 and she would collect Rs. 2,000 towards the rent, electricity and gas bills of their house. If they went with a client for an entire night, they would charge anywhere from Rs. 15,000 to 20,000, which was greatly lucrative for the girls and for Parveen.
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed everything for them. No clients come to them any more. Many refuse to even answer when called.
“People are afraid that they will get this virus from us, since they think it is caused by the bodies of prostitutes,” she says. Now some 12 of her girls have returned to their towns, and call her repeatedly. They tell her of their financial difficulties, but she is unable to offer them any work in this situation. “I tell them I’m not running a factory here. The poor girls hang up after I scold them,” Parveen says.
She says that the poor, the crippled and even members of the traditional transgender community, the Khwaja Serah, can still go to authorities and ask for help in this time. But this is not an option for sex workers like Parveen. “We can’t afford to make a spectacle of ourselves by saying ‘Sir, we are prostitutes, give us money for rations’. We can die of hunger but we cannot reveal our identity to anyone. My brothers still don’t know about what I do. If they found out, they would burn me alive. A prostitute’s rations and food comes from selling her body behind closed doors.”
Sara Ali Khan comes from a remote part of Pakistan, but her family lives in a 5-marla house near Barfwala Chowk in Rawalpindi’s Sadiqabad area. Her father was a security guard at a petrol station, but due to poverty and bad company, he became addicted to heroin. Sara was in the 11th grade when her father became paralysed from a stroke. She had two younger brothers who were not old enough to work. Eventually, she found her way to an ‘Aunty’ in Rawalpindi who supplied girls. She would go to 2 or 3 different places each day, and at the end of the month, the ‘Aunty’ would leave her with around Rs. 30,000, which helped run her household.
As the Coroanvirus pandemic spreads, there is no more work for her. The ‘Aunty’ calls prospective clients and begs them to pay even Rs. 500. But nobody agrees, because they are afraid of catching the infection. Sara says her mother can get them food from charity, but they have no way of paying rent and utility bills. Her relatives don’t know that she is a sex worker, and her mother tells them that Sara works at someone’s house as a domestic worker.
“We would be unable to show our face to anyone again, if they found out,” says Sara.