The call to prayer echoes across the ancient walled city of Lahore. Worshippers hurriedly make their way towards the centuries-old Badshahi Mosque, and in its shadow thrives a trade older than the grand mosque itself.
Condemned by the devout and exploited by the elite, the sex workers of Heera Mandi, Lahore’s infamous red-light district, earn their living on the margins of society. Open doorways offer a fleeting glimpse into the realities of the women who live here, most of whom face a daily struggle to make ends meet.
Each has a different story to tell. Some were born into the trade while others were trafficked from rural villages and poorer parts of the city; lured by men with the prospect of marriage or employment and then sold off to brothels.
A winding alleyway leads to a small, concrete building with green doors. An unexpected chanting of nursery rhymes can be heard. Inside, a cluttered, makeshift classroom equipped with wooden desks, an alphabet-strewn blackboard and walls plastered with colourful drawings. The voices belong to the children of Lahore’s sex workers.
They are the forgotten by-product of Pakistan’s undercover sex trade; spending their days on the streets and returning at night to sleep on brothel floors. They face malnutrition, physical and mental abuse and are prime targets of trafficking.
According to Sahil, a local NGO, child sexual abuse cases in Pakistan have increased from nine cases per day in 2017 to 12 cases per day in 2018. Between January and June 2018, 2,322 child abuse cases were reported from all four provinces of Pakistan. The data revealed children between the ages of 6 and 10 were most vulnerable and, of the total cases reported, the majority of victims were girls.
Like shameful secrets, society prefers to keep them hidden and, to the Pakistan government, most of these children don’t exist. Since many are without fathers – a prerequisite to obtaining a birth certificate – school enrolment is not only difficult but nearly impossible.
“Every child deserves an education regardless of their background,” says Lubna Tayyab. “These children have dreams to become artists, teachers and doctors – to be respected members of society – and nobody has the right to deprive them of that.”
Born and raised in the red-light district herself, Lubna was taunted at school and made to feel like an outcast. Determined to provide an education for children who no other school seemed to want, she founded her project, Apni Taleem, which in Urdu means “Our Education”.
In 2011, Lubna converted the ground floor of her home into a classroom and began offering free schooling to the children of sex workers in her neighbourhood. She went door to door, engaging mothers in discussing the importance of education and encouraging their kids to attend. It wasn’t easy – most mothers were reluctant since their children were expected to contribute to the family income by begging on the streets, but Lubna persisted.
She made a special effort to recruit girls, who were less likely than their brothers to attend, and began offering free school meals. A dozen turned up, and today over 70 children are being taught a range of subjects, including literacy, numeracy and religious studies.
Apni Taleem operates on a budget of roughly £20,000 a year. Local donors show no interest in funding a school for the children of sex workers so UK-based Muslim Charity has stepped up; contributing towards the cost of rent, teacher’s salaries and educational resources.
The Pakistan government has also been reluctant to help. “They insist the children can attend government schools, but that’s not feasible,” says Lubna. “Government schools are meant to be free but in practice they’re not. Uniforms, textbooks and exam fees are costs sex workers can’t afford.”
The school is more than just a facility; it is a safe haven protecting vulnerable children from the harsh realities of street life. According to the Trafficking in Persons Report 2018, Pakistan does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of sex trafficking but efforts to carry out more prosecutions are underway.
Last year, it reported investigating 6,376 alleged sex traffickers and prosecuting 6,232; an increase from 2,979 investigations and 2,021 prosecutions from the previous year. Pakistan also approved the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2018, which seeks to safeguard the rights of human trafficking victims. Overall efforts to combat trafficking remain inadequate compared to the scale of the problem.
Meanwhile, the safety of sex workers and their children remains a real concern. Local police do not provide adequate protection, so violence is a daily occurrence in their lives. Some of the children at the school have already been sexually exploited and their protection remains a key, underfunded priority.
Noor is determined her daughter gets a decent education. “She loves to learn,” she says. “Before the school, she was on the streets while I worked. I was constantly terrified not knowing where she was and what could happen to her.” Despite the challenges these women face, they remain resilient and spirited. Their eyes show hope for a better future and this small school is a big catalyst for their children to discover their full potential.
Lubna Tayyab unexpectedly passed away last month. Her husband and daughter, Fiza Tayyab, are committed to keep her project running. “This school was my mother’s dream and I’ll do everything I can to keep her dream alive,” says Fiza.
Irfan Rajput, director of international programmes at Muslim Charity says: “We are saddened to hear of Lubna’s death. She was a true humanitarian who fought passionately for the rights of women and children in Pakistan. We will continue to support the school in whatever way we can.”
If you would like to support Lubna’s legacy and educate some of the most vulnerable children in Pakistan, please donate