The promise of easy money, smartphones and gifts lure impoverished, under-aged boys in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa into a dark cycle of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Narrating his ordeal, one young Peshawar resident Khan* says he was 12 years old when his elder brother's friend first started to abuse and groom him.
“Ahmed belongs to a rich family. We visited his house daily and played with his toys, mobile and other gadgets," narrates Khan.
“In the beginning, he groped and fondled me on the pretext of love and romance. One day when we were alone in the room, he forcibly abused me... it became a regular pattern," he shares.
Ahmed 'rewarded' Khan with gifts, food and cash each time he obliged, going as far as introducing the victim to his friends who also assaulted the boy.
The cycle of abuse and grooming led Khan to Peshawar's Jinnah park — a hub of commercial sex workers and child abuse. The park has gained notoriety for being a safe pick-up point for teenage sex workers.
Billed as a 'family park', the public space situated on Peshawar's Main GT Road is often used for these activities. After 8pm, it is virtually empty which makes it easy for sex workers to carry out their business unnoticed.
"My neighbours eventually got wind of what I was indulging in and it became so bad that they started knocking on the door of my house. I was compelled to break off all relations with them [neighbours]," Khan recalls, pain and anguish apparent on his face.
At Jinnah Park, Khan met other teenage sex workers and a pimp named Khursheed.
As narrated by Khan, "Khursheed is always in search of sex workers — both males and females — and has contacts in different hotels as far as Rawalpindi, the tribal belt and brothels. He also knows bus drivers who prey on young boys."
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Another teenage boy Gul, who earlier used to earn his livelihood polishing shoes, also surrendered to the clandestine sex trade at Jinnah Park.
Fair-skinned, with striking features, Gul says he was first abused by an elderly man in the Pishtakhara area of Peshawar.
“Our main clients are drivers and daily wagers who take us to dark corners of the park,” he shares.
Without any hope of support, the underage victims appear to have accepted their fate.
"We are earning good money and even have phones with touch screens now," says Khan. He reveals that Khursheed sends boys to different cities and districts where they are paid good money for submitting to sexual exploitation. During a week-long trip to a big city, the young boys could earn anywhere from Rs8,000 to Rs10,000.
"We have been abused by labourers, traders, even security personnel. Every second person wants to take us to bed. I don't enjoy it but only do it for the sake of money," Khan says.
'We know how to gather our boys'
Shan Khan, a pimp for young boys, says homosexuality — known colloquially as 'bacha bazi' — is ubiquitous but certain districts in KP are notorious for it. The culture is pervasive to the extent that crude jokes and text messages are circulated daily.
The father of two children, Sher Khan boasts that he can pick out 'his boy' from a crowd of thousands.
"We have a special whistle technique through which we gather our boys."
He unabashedly admits that he exploits underage boys to satisfy his own lust, using the offer of money and gifts as the lure.
Over 2,000 cases of reported child abuse in 2014
Sahil, a non-governmental organisation working for child rights, said 2,054 cases of child abuse — including 284 cases of sodomy — were reported in 2014 in Pakistan. This number is no reflection of reality however.
A senior social worker at Sahil, Habiba Salman, points out that more than 80 per cent of cases are not reported to police and the media. "The actual number is far more," she discloses.
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In the majority of cases, the victim's family reaches a 'compromise' with the accused in order to 'safeguard their respect' and hush up the matter, says Habiba.
“Most children are abused at the hands of their relatives or friends,” she shares, adding that teachers, policemen and religious clerics are also involved in child sexual abuse.
“Bus terminals, parks, tube wells, under-construction buildings are notorious for this activity...children become victims of abuse and develop sexually transmitted diseases...this is the reality of our country and we need to create awareness about it," Habiba stresses.
Jinnah Park is then just one small part of a dark, systemic issue that remains ignored and hidden.Names have been changed to maintain privacy