Wednesday October 04, 2023

Boys who are not boys

August 03, 2016


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

On Dawn News in English, one of the few English television news channels we used to have until some years ago, a programme was periodically aired around midnight due to its hard-hitting and serious content.

In that programme once, I remember watching a detailed documentary film based on some impressive investigative reports. It was about young boys who were made to survive as commercial sex workers in Karachi. The film estimated the presence of at least 12,000 such boys active in the city at that time. They would sell small things in major markets, bazaars and streets, or on pavements along the main roads in downtown or other busy areas.

From there they would be picked up by older men – mostly working in Karachi as in-migrant workers without families but also those who permanently live there. Maybe a few of these boys were managing on their own but a vast majority was a part of an established trade. There were special hideouts set up by those running the trade in different parts of the city, away from the markets and bazaars where these boys were to be found before being picked up. It was a horrifying documentary.

Some of my journalist friends in other parts of the country, particularly major urban centres in Sindh and Punjab, confirmed the existence of this gruesome and inhuman trade in other cities and towns. But Karachi and Lahore would take precedence simply because of the population of these cities, massive inflow of migrant workers including young boys, urban poverty and the almost non-existent writ of law.

In workshops and restaurants, young boys are sent by their needy parents or poor relatives to work for long hours in the day as cheap, menial labour. To outsiders, they are introduced as apprentices who are learning mechanical works, waiting on customers, cooking, cleaning, etc. In the night, many of them are sexually abused by their employers, older men working in these establishments or their customers in case of roadside cafés and restaurants on inter-city highways.

Some boys are kept permanently for this purpose – depending on their looks and manners. Some are paid to travel and serve the truck driver for the whole haul. A few are in fact employed permanently on trailers, buses and trucks that transport goods and people from one part of the country to the other.

On the busy traffic junctions of cities like Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad, not all but many boys selling different consumable items, brandishing newspapers, wiping clean your windshields or just begging are either available for commercial sex work or are vulnerable to being picked up and forced into such situations. There are some young women and girls available as well but boys are seen to be easier to be used and abused.

We live in a classist, patriarchal and oppressive world. The boys we are speaking about belong to different parts of Pakistan, speak different languages as their mother tongues and may also have distinctly different skin tones and facial features from each other. But they have a few things in common. They are poor, they are young and they are weak.

Patriarchy is not simply about the domination of men. It is about the domination of older, richer and more powerful men. But one may rightly say that many of the abusers of these poor boys are not rich men as such. However, like it has been argued before that there are degrees of marginalisation there are also degrees of being powerful. If you are poor you are marginalised, if you are a poor woman you are more marginalised, if you are a poor minority woman you are most marginalised.

By the same argument, if you are an older richer man you are most powerful. If you are poor but an older man, you still have the ability to exert power over women and younger men and children in your family and community. If you are a poor boy or a girl you are the most helpless in our communities and society.

The plight of poor girls is seen and perhaps is bigger than that of poor boys, particularly when it is about their access to food, mobility, making decisions in a familial context and personal choices. But there is a major difference. The issues faced by boys seldom attract similar attention that the issues faced by girls attract in public discourse.

Even girls begging for alms get more sympathy, young girls selling flowers or vending hairclips get more customers and are not as harshly dismissed by people as boys are. For those who abuse, boys are seen as easier prey since there is no honour attached to their body and hence there is no stigma. A girl assaulted makes much bigger news than a boy raped.

Most poor girls are still sent for indoor jobs. Many are also sent to work in fields and homes. They are treated shabbily, many are abused and some are forced into commercial sex work. But all poor boys from a very young age are sent outdoor to work, to earn and to support themselves and their struggling families. They are poor and they look poor. Their clothes are unclean. They are malnourished. Even if they are fed properly sometimes as a prize for pleasing the abuser, they are subjected to such physical, emotional and mental pain that no rich kid or his parents can ever realise.

Poor young boys and adolescents have very few to speak for them. They are voiceless. They are invisible. There are no active and effective campaigns like ‘Ending Violence against Women and Girls’ being run for them. In this time and age when politics based on identity takes precedence over politics based on class and when faith, gender and ethnicity are the agreed – full and final – defining categories, poor young boys do not occupy any mentionable space in either the discourse or the imagination of politicians or rights defenders.

Therefore, if the notorious criminal and serial killer Javed Iqbal operated with impunity for years and found, convinced, took home, abused and killed more than a hundred boys from the vicinity of Hazrat Data Gunj Bakhsh’s shrine in Lahore and then immersed the bodies of these boys into acid, what is so shocking about hundreds of children kidnapped in Lahore and around over the past few months? What was so shocking when we read about a 12-year old boy who immolated himself after being raped by on-duty policemen in a low-income neighbourhood of Karachi? What was so shocking about the mafia in Kasur that abused children and filmed that abuse to blackmail their parents?

I see scores of poor young boys, ranging from the ages of six to sixteen, every single day while driving to work or roaming around in the major market area across the road from where I live. I see a large number of boys working in workshops or cheap restaurants. I see hundreds on the streets when I visit Lahore or Karachi.

There is one thing more in common among them besides them being poor. They are all growing old with the same pace as our other children. What will they turn into when they are fully grown men? Some who have taken to drugs will get physically weak and remain beggars or become petty thieves. Others who work in the workshops or roadside cafés will emulate those men who employed or abused them in their childhoods and adolescent years. Many will become angry, bitter, callous and devious and remain like that for the rest of their lives.

The way the economy and society are being managed in this country, hundreds of thousands of more new boys will be available to these angry men and other older men for exploitation and abuse. The cycle has to break by creating a more equal, inclusive and just economic system. Otherwise, we all suffer and we all perish.