Sargodha’s debt-ridden class has nothing to sell but their kidneys
The decision to sell her kidney was easy for 40-year-old Ismat Bibi, a housewife who lives in Kot Momin Town in Sargodha District.
With four children to feed, a husband suffering from tuberculosis to look after, and a debt of Rs100,000 to repay, she quickly offered herself up.
The deal seemed simple enough. She would go to a hospital in a nearby city, the organ would be removed and she would get Rs110,000. No one needs two kidneys, Ismat Bibi was told by the middle man, her neighbour in Kot Momin. However, 12 years on, not only have the debts mounted, she is grappling with her husband’s worsening health, a mentally disabled young daughter, and often insufferable abdominal pain due to the removal of her right kidney.
Worse still, her 15-year-old son plans to sell his kidney too. “I am begging my son not to do this, but he is adamant,” Ismat Bibi said as she sat in her one-roomed mud home. “I committed a mistake by selling the kidney, but I had no other option to feed my family,” she lamented.
Punjab is Pakistan’s most prosperous region, but alongside thriving sectors from farming to textiles, another business is booming — the illegal trade in human organs, say police, activists and victims.
Fuelled by a cycle of poverty and debt, this black market has flourished for years with traffickers preying on the poorest – many of them labourers who have helped the region prosper but have been paid a pittance in return. There is no official data on the number of people who have sold their kidneys in Pakistan, but some officials estimate that there could be at least 1,000 victims every year.
National Assembly Standing Committee on Human Rights Chairman Babar Nawaz Khan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “Pakistan is a hot spot for organ trafficking, but authorities are now cracking down. Until last year, Pakistan was the main hub of this trade.”
He added, “According to some estimates, 85% of all organ trafficking cases were reported in Pakistan a few years back, but we are no longer in the top 10.”
Social Activist and a victim of organ trafficking Zafar Iqbal said, “I have applications from around 250 people, who have sold their kidneys and who are now seeking government help.”
Iqbal added, “They want authorities to provide jobs to them or their kids, as they can no longer do jobs like construction work.”
Zafar Iqbal sold his kidney in 2003. His brother had died and he needed the money to look after his brother’s wife and children as well as fund the weddings of his two sisters.
Mohammad Zaheer, a worker at a sprawling orchard on the outskirts of Kot Momin, said he earns a daily wage of Rs500. But he receives less than half after deductions made for a loan he took from his employer. “I sold my kidney five years ago to pay for my younger sister’s marriage,” 43-year-old Zaheer maintained. “She got married, but my ordeal did not end and I had to borrow money from my employer to feed my six children.”
Pakistan outlawed the commercial trade in human organs in 2010, imposing a jail term of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of one million rupees for doctors, middlemen, recipients and donors. The law permits donors to give their organs to recipients who are relatives and for altruistic purposes, but bans the sale of human organs to foreigners.
But low wages and poor implementation of the law has hampered efforts to curb rising cases of organ trafficking.
In July, the Federal Investigation Agency raided a private clinic in Lahore, and arrested 14 people, including two Omani nationals suspected to be potential recipients. Police admit the trafficking networks are difficult to break: They involve several players – from doctors, nurses and paramedics to hospital owners and businessmen – and many are influential and with political connections.
But authorities say they plan to strengthen the law by giving more power to the regulatory authority in charge of transplantations, upping surveillance at hospitals, and imposing stricter punishments. “We are determined to clamp down this illegal trade,” Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We are consulting all stakeholders to tighten laws to curb this inhumane business.”
These words however mean little to the victims who are left often still in debt and with health problems due to a lack of healthcare after their organs were removed. “I have the option of either feeding my children or buying medicine for myself,” 30-year-old brick kiln worker Sarfraz Ahmed said while pulling up his shirt to show a thin brown scar on the left side of his abdomen. “I have opted to feed my kids.”