LAHORE // Thousands of ever younger women across urban Pakistan have been pushed into prostitution over the past 10 years, according to an investigation that ties the phenomenon to a state-promoted population boom in the 1980s. The military junta of Gen Zia ul Haq, which ruled Pakistan from 1977 until 1988, used its weight with religious political parties to propagate a dogma of prodigious procreation. Against a backdrop of Soviet occupation in neighbouring Afghanistan and heightened tensions with historical protagonist India, congregational prayer leaders preached that only sheer weight of numbers would guarantee Pakistan's survival.
A generation of Pakistanis responded vigorously, pushing population growth to above three per cent a year for more than a decade, with the aid of mass vaccinations that lowered the infant mortality rate. Among the many negative consequences of Gen Haq's procreativity policy, however, was a sharp rise in the migration to urban centres of enlarged poor families, who were no longer able to survive as sharecroppers and artisans in strained village economies. A second was the unforeseeable creation of a nationwide gender imbalance, whereby females now outnumber males by a ratio of 1.1 to 1 in a population of about 170 million.
The investigation - conducted from 2001 to 2007 by me for research into a novel - concludes that the two factors have conspired to create the stereotype of a new generation of female sex worker: family migrates to Lahore or Karachi in the early 1990s; father is an ageing unskilled worker unable to support his six to eight children; daughters are maturing, but being sent out to work because the family cannot afford to meet the dowry demands of suitors who are increasingly scarce.
Faced with the dual drudgery of spinsterhood and poverty, and constantly harassed by a male society still largely unadjusted to the public presence of women, many seek a logical, if desperate, escape route. The "fortunate" ones find their way to upmarket bordello madams, such as 46-year-old "Candy", a living legend in Lahore's social underworld. Hailing from the Kanjar clan, which claims descent from the courtesans of the Mughal Court, she is popular among new entrants - especially those pursuing dual lives - because of her reputation for grooming, fair dealing and political connections.
"I can't figure out where all these new girls keep coming from," she said, before her 2006 arrest for narcotics trafficking. "I keep getting calls from them, quoting one reference or another, but when they turn up at the doorstep, it's obvious they aren't from our line of work. They are just kids from regular families and I don't want their virginities on my conscience, so I send them away. A few weeks later, they are back, saying it's no longer an issue."
Some of Candy's graduates have gone on to earn underworld celebrity status: Neha, a 26-year-old from Lahore's working-class Sanda district, has financed the illegal immigration of two brothers to the United Kingdom from the proceeds of her career as an erotic dancer - marketed through the sale of contraband DVDs - across Pakistan and in expatriate population centres in the Middle East. "Before I got into this line, back in 2002, I used to make 2,000 rupees [about Dh150 at the time] a month working in an office. It was a dead-end situation. My parents were looking at me for money to raise my brothers and sisters, and this was the only way. I've done what I had to do," she said, batting her eyelids to show off tiger's-eye contact lens.
Neha is one of the clever few not to lose sight of the fact that careers are short in a sex industry being constantly restocked by poverty. She has kept her wits and invested her earnings in property and consumer-size 22-carat gold bars. Most of her contemporaries descend into a vicious circle of clinical depression and drug abuse, and fall off the radar. The hardened survivors emerge to find themselves back at square one.
"I'm too old to get regular work any more and am really struggling to pay the bills," said Ghazal, a 36-year-old from Karachi with two children from a short-lived marriage to a client. "I'm trying to grow my team of girls, but they disappear and set up their own pimping operations as soon as they have a regular clientele." As a conservative society still living in denial of moral decline, Pakistan has yet to acknowledge proliferating prostitution with a place on its socio-political agenda. However, that may change with growing public awareness about the spread of the HIV/Aids virus - more than 4,000 people in Pakistan have tested positive in the past three years. Official surveys of nine select urban centres, carried out between 2004 and 2006, identified four high-risk groups among a vulnerable population of some 89,000: female sex workers - comprising 42 per cent - were the largest.