By Riddhi Doshi for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Editor’s note: For decades, sex workers in India have been pushed to the margins, forced to deal with shame and stigma from society. ‘Unheard Stories‘ is a series of six stories by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with 101 Reporters that aims to bring these narratives to the fore, to build a more inclusive and accepting society.
In the dark alleys of the Sonapur locality of Bhandup, a central Mumbai suburb, if by mistake a woman or girl takes the wrong turn, chances are that things might not end well for her.
So says Aabboo Varghese, founder and executive director of NGO Purnata that has been working to prevent human trafficking, and rehabilitating commercial sex workers in the area.
One of the residents here is Namita (name changed), from Nepal. At age 11, she was trafficked from her village by a woodcutter to Delhi. Namita was an unhappy child. Her mother had passed away and her stepmother was cruel to her. It was easy for the much older man to convince her to elope with him to India with a promise of a job as a caretaker. Neither came true.
“I didn’t want to leave but I did not want to live with my stepmother; she tortured me every day. So, I thought it would be nice to go away and earn some money,” says Namita, who is now 21.
The man sold her to a brothel in Delhi. “He seemed to have friends there,” she says. The ‘price’ for a nubile 14-year-old could range from ₹50,000 to ₹3 lakh those days – the amount the man would have pocketed.
“According to our study in Sonapur, most women are brought from poverty-stricken localities of West Bengal and Nepal,” says Varghese. Referred to as ‘supply-states’, families of girls in these areas are sweet talked into letting them go with promises of a better life and steady income in cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
In the cities, underworld crime syndicates run these sex dens. Each room in a brothel, depending on the size of the house, accommodates three to seven sex workers. The women have a bed each. The beds are curtained off from each other to give a semblance of privacy.
“What we understand is that ruffians, feared in the neighbourhood, run and manage brothels of each area,” Varghese tells YKA. They identify a place that can be rented out to run brothels from. They keep the sex workers on a tight leash, and navigate law and order issues to keep the prostitution rings running.
In Delhi, Namita was handed over to a woman addressed as Gharwali (house-keeper) by those who are part of the brothel. The Gharwali’s duties include cooking, washing (clothes and utensils) and keeping the house clean for the sex workers. Her main job, though, is to ensure that the girls do not escape.
“I escaped thrice when in Delhi. But each time I was traced and brought back to the brothel. I didn’t know Hindi then and couldn’t run far enough,” Namita tells YKA. “Each time I was brought back, I was beaten black and blue.”
After every escape attempt, the 11-year-old was put under what is called bandhan (bound to the brothel). During this time, she was put to work to recover the money shelled out to ‘buy’ her in the first place. A sex worker under bandhan is not entitled to the money she makes. She is fed, clothed and given medical help when she falls ill, but she’s in every other sense under house arrest.
Under bandhan, Namita was not only not allowed to venture out of the brothel, she could also not say ‘no’ to a customer. Her Gharwali kept an eye on her every move, and took all the decisions for her.
“I know my Gharwali was making lots of money because of me. Our session with each customer lasts for 20 minutes, and for each session I used to get paid ₹150 to ₹300 back then. But I got none of that money,” says Namita.
Three years later, when she turned 14, and after the principal sum had been recovered, she started getting paid half the money she made. The other half went to the Gharwali.
“Some months I made as much as ₹1 lakh. But I had to part with ₹50,000 to the Gharwali every one of those months. Besides, I had to shell out ₹1,000 to ₹2,000 for food, and extra for medical expenses.”
From the money the Gharwali gets from the sex workers, she pays the rent for the brothel; spends on the its upkeep, and a percentage goes to the goons who provide ‘protection’.
The ₹1,200 fine that the police impose after raids is an extra expense. “The police are obviously hand in glove with the muscle, but they do rescue minor girls and those being forced against their will to work as sex workers,” says Varghese.
When Namita was a little over 14, she was rescued and sent to live in a children’s home in Delhi. She spent almost four years there, until she turned 18.
A year and a half later, she returned to her home in Nepal, and picked up menial jobs in her village. This, till she decided to leave, choosing to go to Mumbai.
“My stepmother continued to harass me, and the villagers too were not friendly,” says Namita. “In any case, my life was already spoiled, so I wanted to get back to the business and make good money.”
Taken in by a Gharwali in Mumbai, she now shares a room with four other girls. Her one big worry these days is that she might get thrown out. “I’m not as physically capable as I was earlier. I do not get that many customers now. I dread the day I might be told to leave,” she says.
Like most sex workers, Namita is also illiterate and, therefore, insecure. “I know that the world looks down on sex workers. I live in constant fear of contracting HIV. But as I haven’t studied and know no other work, I don’t know where else to go and what else to do,” says this young woman, who is just 21 but has already given up on life.
About the author: Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. With more than 10 years of experience with main-stream media, she has written extensively on social issues.