Kaneez Fatima’s story is typical of how young women end up in the business of prostitution in Pakistan
Although they are legally outlawed, the number of sex workers in the country has increased over the past few years.
Growing unemployment and inflation and the resulting rise in poverty have led many down this road.
Increasingly, young women across the country are putting their bodies up for sale in the “flesh markets”.
The daughter of a poor rural farmer from the Punjab province’s sub-district of Chiniot, Kaneez Fatima’s only advantage was that she was able to complete her school education.
Still in her teens, she was married off as is normally the case in Pakistan’s rural heartland.
“Initially it worked fine, but then my husband went out of work,” she told BBC Urdu.
“I had two small children to support, and started to work as a maid.”
Kaneez Fatima says the place where she started work was actually a brothel.
“The people there convinced me to join the profession. The money was better than anything I could find and I was desperate.”
There has been no looking back after that, she says.
“I started out as one of the girls working out of the dera [or den, as a brothel is called by locals].”
The girls, as she calls them, work out of it and are handled by a man or more often a woman known simply as “aunty”.
Kaneez says she made rapid progress through the ranks due to her education.
“My first dera was in Mandi Bahauddin [a town in central Punjab], where they made me in-charge soon after I joined.”
She says that she kept her profession a secret from her family, but her husband managed to find out.
“He called me to the village and then tried to shoot me.”
She escaped with a bullet wound to her leg and never went back.
“I changed my name and moved to Lahore portraying myself as a model.”
She has continued in the business and has now graduated to supplying girls to brothels all over Punjab.
“I get a commission ranging from an average of 5,000 to 10,000 rupees ($60 to $120) per girl. The price varies according to age and beauty.”
Kaneez says she also has to guarantee that the girls will not run away.
“While most are forced into the profession due to poverty, there are some who join voluntarily because they can make more money than in a ‘normal’ trade.”
According to her, the normal rate for a girl for two to three hours ranges between 1,000 and 1,500 rupees ($12 to $18).
“Of course if a client wants to spend the entire night then the rate rises exponentially, depending on the girl’s age and looks.”
The girls only get a fraction of this money as most of it goes to the aunty, she says.
“The girl will get 300 rupees ($4) if she spends a few hours, and up to 2,000 rupees ($24) for the entire night.”
Kaneez says the number of girls is rising by the day, and they are often brought in by relatives such as fathers, mothers, brother and even husbands.
“Some of the girls are so young that my heart refuses to agree, but what can one do?”
Nida is a pretty and innocent looking young woman of about 20 and has been a prostitute for six years.
“My first time was when I was 14 years old and I was brought here by my mother as she had to pay off a loan of 10,000 rupees.
“I did not even know what to do at the time.”
Nida says that she has continued in the trade as her entire family is now dependent on her for their day-to-day survival.
“I don’t want to be here… I have dreams about getting married and having children, but I have no choice.”
She says she would leave the trade immediately if the government or some social organisation could ensure food, clothing and shelter for her parents and siblings.
Maria, on the other hand, is very much in the business out of choice.
“My husband was good for nothing, and I wanted my children to get the best of everything,” she says.
Maria says she has worked all over northern Pakistan, specially in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
She says her best days were in Islamabad where she was able to make up to 100,000 rupees ($1,200) a month plus tips.
“The people were always well behaved and did not mistreat me. The clients never identified themselves, but I could tell some were powerful and important men.
“Quite a few of them were Westerners as well.”
Maria says she eventually left because of the rising attacks on hotels, which were her main operating places.
“I am in Lahore now, and while things are not as lucrative, at least there is more security.”
Maria, however, is one of the luckier ones.
Kaneez Fatima says that there are so many horror stories in the profession that she could relate them for hours.
“The most common cases are where a client makes a perverse or strange demand and the girl refuses. They either beat her black and blue, or just kill her and tell us she has run away.
“After all, who cares for another dead prostitute?” (BBC)