By Arman Sabir
BBC Urdu service, Karachi
Zeba Raman is a 28-year-old Pakistani sex worker. Born into the profession in Karachi's red light district of Napier Road, she plies her trade all over the city. She is celebrating the launch of an initiative to promote health awareness among sex workers.
"We are now revealed to society," says Ms Raman. But prostitution remains illegal and anathema to many in Muslim-majority Pakistan. It is an ever-present fact of life, but never really acknowledged. The last two decades, given the increasing Islamisation of Pakistani society, have further reinforced stereotypes about such women.
But the profession has only grown. Karachi alone has at least 100,000 female sex workers, according to data gathered by local welfare organisations. Lahore has 75,000 sex workers while the military garrison town of Rawalpindi has at least 25,000. 'Spirit of openness' Pakistan's first workshop on health awareness among sex workers has contributed to a new spirit of openness in the profession.
"Earlier we were doing our jobs secretly, but now we can raise our voice for our rights," Ms Raman says. It was very difficult to gather sex workers under one roof. Many were simply afraid of being arrested Dr Ghulam Murtaza The three-day event was recently held in Karachi by Gender & Reproductive Health Forum (GRHF) - a local social welfare organisation - in collaboration with the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA).
"I am very happy that a number of sex workers attended the workshop," says Ms Raman. "This has provided us an opportunity to gather and exchange views and experiences." She is not the only one to have benefited. "I became a sex worker five years back," says Nadia, 26. Nadia said that she learned about safe sex measures at the workshop. "I had heard about HIV/Aids, but I thought that it could only be transmitted through blood transfusions.
"I did not know that precautionary measures should be taken during sex as well," she said. Before the workshop, most sex workers who attended did not know about measures for safe sex, Nadia added. Dr Ghulam Murtaza, the head of the GRHF and the man behind the workshop, said the organisation was working to create awareness of safe sex among female sex workers.
Ms Raman said she drew a lot of confidence from the workshop "It was very difficult to gather sex workers under one roof. Many were simply afraid of being arrested," he said. "We offered several incentives and assurances and paid them 1,000 rupees ($20) per day for their attendance," he said. "Finally, we succeeded in gathering almost 100 sex workers at the workshop held at a local hotel."
Most of the sex workers who attended avoided the cameramen there, saying they were afraid of being exposed to their families. Many said their husbands or family members did not know they were sex workers. They told their families that they worked for private firms. Despite these barriers, Dr Murtaza said the workshop had been successful.
"We have trained some female sex workers. They will now go to their community to create awareness among their co-workers." 'Reinvigorated' The international participants at the workshop were of the view that Pakistan was still relatively safe as far as HIV/Aids was concerned. I can now continue with my profession with more confidence Zeba Raman The UNFPA representative, Dr Safdar Kamal Pasha, said at least 100 HIV-positive sex workers had been found in central Punjab.
But the number of HIV-positive women was not high among female sex workers in Pakistan. "It can be controlled by creating awareness about the disease among sex workers and about usage of precautionary measures," he said. The workshop was widely considered to be a success and Dr Pasha said they were considering organising a national convention for sex workers next year. The sex workers themselves were moved by the workshop. "Having attended the workshop, I feel reinvigorated," Zeba Raman declares. "I can now continue with my profession with more confidence."