Sexual exploitation of girls is well documented but boys are often overlooked. In Pakistan, child rights workers fear rural poverty is pushing greater numbers of boys into selling their bodies.
As daylight fades, boys aged 8 to 18 begin to gather in and around the Old City of Lahore. To the unassuming eye they are just enjoying a leisurely night out. But those frequenting the same haunts know by their signals and mannerisms that many of them are waiting at specific spots to be picked up by men for sex.
Resting against the grille encircling a merry-go-round in Karim Park, by the Minar-i-Pakistan, a 60 metre-high monument to independence, a teenage boy looks around. He is dressed in traditional shalwar-kameez, loose trousers and a long shirt, with a thick shawl thrown casually around his shoulders. Despite a drop in temperature the park is crowded and people are sitting on benches sipping hot tea, munching peanuts or eating nan halim.
The boy against the grille speaks to no one until a smartly dressed man in tightly fitting blue jeans and a black pullover approaches him. Within seconds another older man appears from nowhere and places his arm around the boy. He says something to the young man in blue jeans who turns to leave.
Salman Malik, Community Project Officer for the government of the Punjab and also for Pehchaan, a Lahore-based non-governmental organisation, confirms that the young boy comes here regularly to pick up clients and had been approached for sex. "His 'protector' runs a tea stall behind the Lahore Fort, where the boy also works as an errand boy," says Malik. "At night the boy is taken to the Minar-i-Pakistan to attract men. His protector probably didn't trust the man in jeans."
Malik has been working with abused and sexually exploited boys for nearly two years and is currently involved in a project for the government of the Punjab to monitor child sex workers for HIV infection. "In my experience nearly every child you see working on the streets of Lahore is sexually abused, with the majority involved in sex work," he says.
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a global problem. While the exploitation of girls is well documented and there is often support available for them, little research has been done on young boys in the sex trade. Instead their situation tends to go unrecognised, is treated with less gravity or is presumed to be associated only with tourists.
The international non-governmental organisation End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), has published reports on the prostitution of boys in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. They found that while it was difficult to quantify the magnitude of the problem, it was "much bigger than previously recognised" and that "exploiters are local men and in some cases local women."
The Pakistan report, conducted in collaboration with the Child Rights and Abuse Committee of the Pakistan Paediatrics Association (CRAC-PPA), concentrated on boys aged 10 to 15 in Lahore and Peshawar. It pointed to the 'rapid rate of urbanisation' that had led to more children living and working on the streets. The main factor pushing boys into commercial sex was "the need for basics such as food, clothing, accommodation and money", it said.
"There's a specific scenario which pulls the boy into prostitution, and the biggest is being born into a huge family of seven to nine children, having an abusive parent and lacking the means to survive because of extreme poverty," said Dr Naeem Zafar, focal person at the Punjab CRAC-PPA and President of its sister-organisation, Pehchaan.
On a busy Thursday night, 18-year-old Mudassar was waiting outside the shrine of Sher Shah Wali, close to the Minar-i-Pakistan monument. He left his hometown Faisalabad, 230 km south of Lahore, eight months ago, unable to cope with the tension at home, where he lived with eight siblings, five of whom were married with children. "We had huge fights at home and not enough money to eat. My father works at a local factory and you can imagine how difficult it must be to support a huge family. Even though my brothers work, there's never enough for all of us," said Mudassar.
Once in Lahore, like many new arrivals he headed for the sufi shrine of Data Sahib for free food. "I was walking around the shrine when two policemen on a motorbike took me to a place at the Heera Mandi (the red light area) and raped me. I was locked in a small room for an entire day and night before I broke a window to escape."
Mudassar ran into a group of zenanas (transsexuals) who offered him food and shelter if he became a sex worker. "I desperately needed a place to stay and decided to go with them. But now I share a room with a friend who is also a sex worker. I don't think I ever want to go back home. When I have enough money I'll start a small business and leave this hateful job," he vowed. He makes Rs 100 ($1.60) for each sexual encounter and has five to six clients a day.
Boys are often spotted the moment they catch a truck or bus for Lahore by the drivers, who can trick them into having sex by promising to take them on as apprentices. Frequently their abusers are their employers and mentors: hotel owners, guests and staff, and tea stall owners where the boys work as extra help for a monthly allowance of Rs1000 to 1500 ($16 to $25).
Adult workers lure boys into having sex in exchange for basic amenities. "That is the biggest incentive for these runaway boys – food and shelter. Since they are young, financially constrained and physically fragile they are in no position to resist," comments Sarah Asad, executive director of Pehchaan.
ECPAT researchers spoke to boys as young as 10, nearly all of whom come from large, low-income families. "I come from a very poor and large family," 16-year-old Safur told them. "My father is a mason but can hardly find any work. I have to earn money for my family at any cost. I am ready to do anything for money, even selling myself for sexual services."
Thirteen-year-old Saheed said his father had left him at the bus terminal in Lahore to earn money. "I work with a driver, along with two other boys. I clean the bus and do other errands," he explained. "My driver is a very cruel man. When he gets angry he beats me black and blue…. When he is in a good mood, he has sex with me. He gives me free food and also some money."
Each day boys run the risk of rape, violence, drug abuse, sexually-transmitted disease including HIV/AIDS and even death. But unlike girls they have little access to help. Boys, the ECPAT report noted, are generally considered "less prone to physical and psychological damage from exploitation than girls" and are not usually thought to be "in dire need of specialised rehabilitation services".
They also face being labelled as homosexual, considered socially, culturally and legally unacceptable in most of South Asia. This common assumption is vehemently denied by Mudassar. "I'm not a homosexual and neither are all the others I know. I hate it and wish I could find a better alternative to live, but failed every time I tried."
Although both exploiters and exploited encompass a range of sexual preferences, Dr Zafar says most boy prostitutes are not homosexual. "It's wrong to assume these children are homosexuals and enjoy sex [with men]," said Dr Zafar. "They are being exploited for sex."
The age of consent is 16 in Pakistan but children forced into prostitution are treated as adults in the legal system and face punishment if convicted. "Last July, the government did approve a policy plan of action but the final draft has yet to be approved," said Dr Zafar.
Until the root causes of child sexual exploitation are addressed, there is little hope that the situation will improve. Poverty and lack of basics will continue to force children onto the streets and into the hands of exploiters.
[The names of some of the interviewees have been changed]