Prostitution in Pakistan is a taboo culture of sex-trade that exists as an open secret although being illegal. Prostitution is largely based in organisational set-ups like brothels or furthered by individual call girls. Sex-trade is deemed illegal due to the declaration of extramarital sex as an illegal activity. Prostitutes in the country, thus, operate underground and in spite of the legal difficulties, and contrary to popular belief, prostitution is thriving in the country. Both female and male prostitution have grown in operational yield in Pakistan over the years. With this increase in professional sex-trade in the country, non-governmental organisations are beginning to worry about issues like discrimination and AIDS.
In 2008, the United States State Department placed the Pakistan as a "Tier 2" in its annual Trafficking in Persons reports, meaning that it does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.
The caste system in South Asia, involving various castes and sects, has always been a ground for segregated skill development. In the region, occupational castes evolved over time providing specific skills to the society through hereditary exclusion from others. Being a blacksmith, goldsmith, shoemaker, or gardener etc., thus, became hereditary professions of specific communities. Over time, a professional caste which favoured the society with services of prostitution also evolved. Men and women belonging to the community committed themselves to the act of sex-trade, where men stayed as supportive influences and women were the main workers. The non-elite class had a parallel system, that of brothels, which evolved much later when they no longer were controlled by the kings and nobility was loosened. It coincided with the growth of sea-trade where sailors became good clientèle for the low-ranking prostitutes. During the British Raj, the earlier nobility was replaced by a new nobility composed of those who showed loyalty for the British. This new nobility was incapable of taking the role of patrons like earlier kings, and so the British provided much need patronage for the profession to grow and regulated the trade.
After the partition in 1947, Pakistan inherited the historical red-light districts in Lahore and Multan including the infamous Hira Mandi area. These were well-developed and attracted both wealthy clients and those looking for singers and actresses. The prostitutes and associates in the sex-trade were named kanjars. while their musician companions were known as the community of mirasis. The prostitutes would usually, and still do, dance to the music of harmonium and tabla played by the mirasis. Where Lahore and Multan were the known contenders in the trade, other cities also had their own red-light districts which may include Ghulam abad and Aminpur bazar in Faisalabad Napier Road in Karachi and Qasai Gali in Rawalpindi. The prostitutes retained the hereditary character of their occupation and the social stigma.
During the rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who tried to Islamise the nation, prostitution was viewed as an "evil" in society and attempts were made to eradicate prostitution. Attempts were also made to curb music and dancing. The hours for performance of the dancing girls were reduced to two hours every evening. Police checkpoints were established in all entrances of red-light districts during the hours of rehearsing or practising music where the names of the visitors in red-light areas were recorded in police register frightening the clients away.
The women involved in the practice of prostitution in Pakistan can be divided into three broad categories: women who have been trafficked or lured into the profession and women who have been born into the profession and women who willingly seek out a pimp to make extra money. Trafficked women are mainly found in the brothels, while those who willingly join this profession work as call girls, usually accompanied by a dulla or pimp. Those born into the profession are 'schooled' at home and operate under the management of their mother or another older female relative.
Prostitution, especially in brothels, often remains associated with human trafficking as trafficked women are sold into brothels. In 2003, approximately 20,000 minors were engaged in prostitution in Pakistan.
A recent study indicated that major cities like Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan have large population of sex workers. Many sex workers in these cities operate from hotels or homes. Some cities have red-light districts, but due to illegal status of prostitution, many sex workers work in homes and other private facilities. There are very few identifiable traditional red-light districts in the cities in Pakistan. Prostitution in Pakistan is dispersed throughout urban areas in residential suburbs.
Cities like Karachi and Lahore are major base of operation for call-girls. In Karachi, many girls take on the occupation of call-girls independently; however most girls enter into prostitution after coming into contact with a pimp. The girls share 40%–50% of their income with the pimps. Some call girls work with the pimps under a fixed monthly amount, and the pimps provide police protection, shelter and bear daily expenses. Many call girls learn dance-forms like mujra to earn more money. Most of the prostitutes operating in affluent urban areas are educated and belong to the middle-class.
Affluent men in the nation may have a second or even a third wife who may be a prostitute with whom they have had a semi-permanent sexual relationship in return for financial support. These men and women do not view their relationship in terms that of a client and a sex worker.
Male and gay prostitution is increasing in Pakistan, though gay prostitution is not a recent phenomenon in the country. British explorer Richard Francis Burton, who visited the Sindh region long before the British conquest, documented a brothel of boy prostitutes in Karachi. Today many areas of large cities in the country have become virtual red-light districts for gay sex. Male prostitutes operate their business in every city and major town in Pakistan. Clients of male prostitutes come from every class, age group and profession. Homosexual men belonging to the upper and middle classes frequently pick up male prostitutes from video game shops, restaurants and cold-drinks spots. Young male prostitutes generally find customers in places like dark alleys, crowded bus stops, shopping centres, cinemas, hotel lobbies, parks, railway stations, hospitals, school compounds, elevators of public buildings etc. Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Sabzi Mandi, Kharadar, Lea Market, Landhi, Malir, and Lyari in Karachi are places visited by homosexuals from lower income groups. Clients in these areas primarily consist of bus drivers and conductors, night watchmen, labourers from upcountry, army personnel, policemen, low-income government officials, small-time businesspersons etc.
Many male prostitutes offer services at hotel rooms booked for the purpose instead of the client's residence. This is because while accompanying a client to his residence prostitutes become vulnerable to assault or robbery. Some prostitutes have sex with clients in the back seat of the client's car. There are many part-time prostitutes who are students, salespersons, workers in hotels and garages. They become involved in the profession to earn extra money, and often to get a job in the film industry. Some involved in prostitution often manage to save enough money to go abroad in search of a job. Many boys are frequently used by the police without getting paid. Plainclothes police officers are often involved in the extortion and blackmail of male prostitutes.
Male prostitutes in the country generally range from fifteen to twenty-five years of age. However, a few prostitutes are in their early thirties and some are as young as thirteen. Like their clients, male prostitutes have varying ethnic backgrounds. They come from all four provinces of Pakistan, and often from foreign countries like Afghanistan and Iran. A large number of Iranian and Afghan refugee youths have become involved in prostitution in Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi. The majority of male prostitutes have little or no education, however some are graduates. An average male prostitute in Pakistan earns approximately 5,000 to 7,000 rupees per month. However those who have clients among foreign tourists earn much more.
Prostitution has no legal recognition in Pakistan. Moreover despite growth of male prostitution and gay prostitution, homosexuality is outlawed in the nation. Under Section 377 of the Pakistan Penal Code, whoever voluntarily has "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal" shall be punished by 100 lashes and from 2 years to life imprisonment. While arrests are not common for homosexuality, the law is used as a tool to blackmail. Police frequently take money or sex from people they know to be involved in commercial or non-commercial homosexual relationship. Pakistani law is greatly influenced by the Penal Code drawn up by the British in 1892. This remains a major element of the current Pakistani law.
Section 371A and section 371B of the Pakistan Penal Code states:
371A. Selling person for purposes of prostitution, etc.– Whoever sells, lets to hire, or otherwise disposes of any person with intent that such person shall at any time be employed or used for the purpose of prostitution or illicit intercourse with any person or for any unlawful and immoral purpose, or knowing it to be likely that such person will at any time be employed or used for any such purpose, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to twenty-five years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanations.–(a) When a female is sold, let for hire, or otherwise disposed of to a prostitute or to any person who keeps or manages a brothel, the person so disposing of such female shall, until the contrary is proved, be presumed to have disposed of her with the intent that she shall be used for the purpose of prostitution. (b) For the purposes of this section and section 371B, "illicit intercourse" means sexual intercourse between persons not united by marriage.
371B. Buying person for purposes of prostitution, etc.–-Whoever buys, hires or otherwise obtains possession of any person with intent that such person shall at any time be employed or used for the purpose of prostitution or illicit intercourse with any person or for any unlawful and immoral purpose, or knowing it to be likely that such person will at any time be employed or used for any such purpose, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to twenty-five years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation.–Any prostitute or any person keeping or managing a brothel, who buys, hires or otherwise obtains possession of a female shall, until the contrary is proved be presumed to have obtained possession of such female with the intent that she shall be used for the purpose of prostitution.
Sexual relations between two consenting adults was not a crime in Pakistan before 1979. Only the involvement of minors in prostitution was prohibited by law. Later the Zina Ordinance was enacted and extramarital sex became a criminal offence.
In the 1950s, "dancing-girls" were legitimized as "artists" in a High Court order. Thus they were permitted to perform for three hours in the evening. This is the only legal cover they have obtained till date. Other carnal activities, red-light districts and brothels remain illegal business and operate as an open secret let be by offering huge sums in bribe to the police.