“The first time I sold my body was when I was eight years old,” says Naeem a-matter-of factly. Naeem is now thirteen, a runaway kid and a veteran of the streets of Peshawar, one of Pakistan’s most dangerous cities. He has been a child prostitute since he was eight and a drug addict since he was nine. The first time he sold his body, his junkie elder brother kicked him out of the house and told him not to return without earning some money. “My brother said by any means necessary,” Naeem continues. “I hadn’t been home in three days, so then I did it with a man in the park.”
We stop filming and thank Naeem for his time. Naeem is the last interview we have for this day of our “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame” documentary shoot so my crew packs up. I get into my car. I immediately feel overwhelmed and sick. It’s as if the dissociative stance I maintain while filming crumbles at once, and my mind begins to emotionally process the chorus of soundbytes I have witnessed throughout the last few weeks of filming. Aside from Naeem, I have filmed with other street boys who have been victims of sexual abuse, some as young as seven. I have also met with abusers — from a drug dealer who barters sex from young boys in exchange for drugs, to a bus conductor who admits to having raped eleven boys.
I recall speaking to the bus conductor, Ejaz, a man in his early twenties. He explained to me that you can’t roam around freely with a woman. “People stare, and you have to exercise prudence. But with a boy you can roam around freely and no one suspects anything.” Ejaz is referencing the fierce patriarchal mindset that is pervasive in Peshawar, one in which women are viewed as receptacles of family honor to be safeguarded at home. “A woman is a thing you keep at home, you can’t take her out- people will question your honor.” Ejaz’s assertions are predictably misogynistic, in which women are forced to a limited life inside the home since the threat of interacting with men from outside the family might compromise family honor. The resultant segregation of the sexes makes most women unapproachable till marriage for men like Ejaz. This environment creates a profound sexual frustration, as Ejaz himself admits, which he seeks to relieve by sexually abusing boys.
A few days later, Ejaz who initially spoke candidly, threatens to kill my crew and me, demanding we surrender the footage. We escape Peshawar in the middle of the night, making our way to Karachi. Initially, I feel relief upon reaching my home city, away from the nightmarish stories I heard back in Peshawar. But after working on this film, a statistical reality sets in. To specify, that the abuse of street children is limited to Peshawar and its conservative pockets would be inaccurate. In fact, local researchers estimate that 9 out of 10 street children from all over Pakistan have suffered some form of sexual abuse, including in my home city of Karachi.
Growing up in Pakistan, this was not the first time I had heard of horrific stories of sexual abuse. My previous film, “Shame”, profiled gang-rape survivor and women’s rights icon Mukhtaran Mai, and I spent four years documenting her journey. When Jamie Doran from Clover Films, the producer of my current
documentary film, reached out to me, I was apprehensive about taking on another project that dealt with sexual violence, mostly because of the emotional toll it can take on you as a filmmaker. However, after seeing the success of “Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”, Jamie’s previous film, which inspired the government to take action against sexual slavery of boys in neighboring Afghanistan, I felt it would be a privilege to work towards empowering children in my country.
Now that we have completed this film, I can say unequivocally that this is by far the most emotionally trying film I have made. Apart from filming in Peshawar, a usual target for militant attacks, I witnessed a profound poverty. This poverty manifested itself into an alternative moral paradigm, one that had more to do with survival than compassion. I witnessed parents being indifferent to their sons being abused, boys preferring to live on the street and sell themselves rather than live at home, and abused boys who carry on the cycle by abusing younger boys.
“People scare me,” says Bilal, a seven-year old boy, whom we interviewed. This stays with me.