This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Prerana. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

What It’s Like To Work In Mumbai’s Red Light Area During The Pandemic

More from Prerana

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

I have been a part of the anti-trafficking organisation, Prerana, in Mumbai for the last 13 years. My colleagues Nilima, Vaishali, Sheetal and I work in the red light areas of Kamathipura and Falkland Road. I was 19 years old when I started, and in all my years of work I have never seen the red light areas as quiet and still as they are now.

There is hardly any movement, streets and bylanes are empty, shops are shut, no sign of vehicles, no women soliciting, no brawls, and no men standing at different corners “checking out” women. All I see now are barricades everywhere and police making rounds to ensure that no men are entering the brothels, and no women are soliciting on the streets. There are some everyday citizens, representatives from NGOs or MCGM, and police representatives carrying out relief work.

Since the lockdown, our immediate response has been focused on providing relief supplies to single women and their children living in the brothels of the red light areas in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. Through this piece, I hope to share what one day of work looks like through the lockdown.

Encounters On My Way To The Centre:

It was a Tuesday morning. My colleagues and I were to meet at our Centre located in Kamathipura for our check-in meetings and to discuss how we could reach out to every woman from the Kamathipura and Falkland Road brothels to ensure that they get free ration through the public distribution systems.

Vaishali and I were together, heading towards our Centre located in Kamathipura when we met Kasturi on the way. One of her eyes looked blue and swollen. She became conscious as soon as she realised we had noticed the same. Before we could ask her about it, Kasturi said, “Aadmi ne mara kal sham ko (My partner hit me yesterday evening). He wanted to take away the relief supplies and sell them as he wanted money to buy alcohol. I resisted and he hit me. All this happened in front of my children. I felt bad that my children had to witness this.” 

Her immediate response as she realised that we were worried about her well-being was, “Don’t worry didi, I will be fine. We continued talking to her to understand if we could help her in any way. She told us that she did not want to take the matter to the police or see a doctor. We asked her to come to the Center and collect some cooked food and grocery supplies. Initially, we felt a little helpless about her situation at the brothel, but we were glad to have found a way to help her without pressuring her.  

Before reaching Kamathipura, we also had to meet Rani and her mother. 7-year-old Rani lives with her mother who is from Pune and has been in the sex trade for the last 9–10 years and lives in the red-light area.

In these tough times, sex workers have had to rely on NGOs and other social organisations.

A week ago when Rani went to get chai and bun-maska (bread with butter) for herself and her mother, a gardule (a person with a habit of excessive drug use) approached her, pulled her in a corner, and touched her inappropriately. Rani immediately screamed; people gathered and she ran away from the unsafe situation and reported the matter to her mother. Her mother, Sheela, wanted to report the incident to the police so she approached Vaishali, and together they went to the police station. The incident was reported, an FIR filed and the accused was arrested.

Today was going to be our follow-up visit to check on Rani and Sheela. We entered the brothel where they live and saw that Rani was sleeping. Sheela said Rani was doing well. Her first question when she saw us was, “Is the accused still in prison? We informed her that he still was and no one had applied for his bail. We reminded Sheela about the online counselling session that was scheduled for Rani with our counsellor the next day. She said she remembered and asked us not to worry and told us that she would not require a reminder.

We left from there and continued towards the Center. Till we reached there, Vaishali kept talking about the Life Skills Education sessions we conduct for our children twice a month. She said that our discussions in the sessions have helped build a better presence of mind in our children, and this is how Rani managed to get away from the unsafe situation. Vaishali added, “Since we had covered personal safety in detail, Rani’s response of ‘fight and flight’ helped her to react immediately. She tried her best to do what she had learned, even though she was frightened and agitated.

The Changing Roles Of NCC Amid The Pandemic:

When we reached the Kamathipura Centre five women were sitting in a corner. They greeted us and said that they had just come to meet us and had no particular work. One of the women, Mumtaz, shared that she would like to volunteer for the relief supplies distribution the next time we give out food kits. Nilima, my other colleague, assured Mumtaz that she would be called when we do the distribution.

All of them suggested that for the next time we should consider giving them Sooji, Poha and some pulses in the relief kit instead of rice. Mumtaz told us that many people gave them rice and even MCGM packets had rice. We assured her that we would try to consider her suggestion. Rabiya smiled at us and said, “Ho sakega to rakel bhi dena Bai (Give us kerosene if possible).

After some time, Rabiya asked us if she could sleep for a while at the Centre. Before we could respond, she added, “In the brothel, the brothel keeper is bickering with us for everything as we have not been able to make money. We have not paid the rent and now she also gets upset if we put on the fan. I will sleep just for a while, please don’t refuse.”

Durga is the mother of a daughter who we have known for over 8 years now. Her daughter Nandini has been attending our Night Care Center since she was 3 years old. When Durga saw us she said, “Don’t forget that I have appointed Prerana to take care of my daughter in case I get Corona.

This was not the first time a mother had said this to us. In the last three months, we have often heard this statement and have realised that the women wanted us to reassure them that we would take care of their children. These were real fears that they had due to the coronavirus situation. I was tempted to tell her the entire formal procedure for us to take care of Nandini, but we knew all she wanted was to be reassured and to hear that we were there for her children so I said, “You take the necessary precautions and nothing will happen to you. We will help you and your child. Don’t worry.

Sheetal joined us at this time after returning from her outreach work. She told us that in one of the lanes, Anna (a local political aspirant) had held a meeting with some women and had asked them to submit their Aadhar card details as he was in discussion with a donor who could support them with their rent for at least one month or more.

She further added that she had met another mother, Renuka who told her that Baby’s (a child in our Center) mother had sold the ration we had given her last month. Sheetal asked Renuka what Baby’s mother might have done with the money. “She bought Kerosene,” was the reply. Having heard this Vaishali immediately turned around and said that the next time a donor wants to sponsor relief work we must ask them to support by contributing towards Kerosene and data recharge for the school-going children.

I immediately told them that most probably in today’s call, we would get to know if two of our donors have sanctioned funds to support our school and college-going children with mobile data. “Hope this comes through,” said Vaishali. “Data recharge is important at this stage as children are missing out on their studies and mothers have no money for the recharge, she added.

The Struggles Of Being From The Red-Light Area:

Vaishali informed the group that during her outreach work yesterday in Falkland road she met some women who told her that Dhandah (trade) had not begun. The police are vigilant and are not allowing the entry of customers into the red-light areas.

Ramki, a mother of two children from Uttar Pradesh had told Vaishali that some women were in touch with their customers over the phone. If the customer booked them; they would book a room in a lodge instead of calling their clients to the brothels of Falkland Road. Ramki also told her that her regular customers were happy with Khatta Meetha conversations (small talk of explicit nature) over the phone after which they later transferred the money.

Many said that their customers had gone to their villages and the others who were here did not have jobs. Their regular clients had no income and did not visit them as they had no means to pay the women. Sheetal added that during her outreach to the brothels she now witnessed many verbal altercations between the Gharwalis (brothel keepers) and the women. All of them were frustrated because of the lack of income.

While the women do not have money to give to the Gharwali, the Gharwalis are also not able to make money themselves and their collective financial condition is making it harder for all of them. Many women would use the phrase “Hum na ghar ke rahe na ghat ke (we are out of options)”Women are in distress here but are unable to go home as they have no money and nothing to take with them. The situation in their villages is equally bad and they tell us that they will not be welcomed home if they go empty-handed.

During our work in the past few months we have seen that while women struggle with finances, children also get affected adversely due to the situation. We observed this when Rohan, a 14-year-old boy who studies in eighth grade went missing recently. He has been associated with us for a long time and was also one of the eight children who went to Canada in 2019 to be a part of a cross-cultural event by YUVA Arts Project.

Recently, his mother had reached out to Prerana about his “disappearance”. We helped look for Rohan, but he eventually came back himself. Nilima asked Vaishali about Rohan when we met at the Center. Vaishali said, “He came back and is now with his mother. He is fine. When I asked him why he left the house, He was upset with his mother and remembered the rule of managing anger, to ‘take time out and go for a walk’. So he did that. He left the house, took a walk and since he had money, he bought tea and biscuits. When his anger subsided he returned to his mother. 

Prerna further added that she had met him and his mother during the discussion she had about revised safety rules. Rohan had looked at her, smiled and reassured her, asking her not to worry. “Mujhe sab pata hai, sab rules Yaad hai (I remember the rules that have been taught).

Just then, Chaya, another one of my colleagues who has been working from home since the lockdown, and does most of the coordination regarding relief supplies called to tell us that she had booked groceries for 200 women with Apna Bazar. The same would be delivered to the Centre next week. We were all happy to hear this. We had to finish our work of making the list of women who had Aadhar cards and could access the ration at PDS shops.

While working, I thought to myself that I was glad that my work allowed me to help these women and children during these unprecedented circumstances. The relief work that Prerana had undertaken wasn’t charity; it was to ensure that their dignity is maintained.

Coronavirus has affected everyone and especially the red light areas, but I am glad that my team and I could be of some use to these women during these times. They trust Prerana with their children and they think of us as their support systems and when the time came for us to support them, we did. I realise that no matter what happens, the well-being of these women and children will always be on my mind. With this thought, I got ready for our weekly check-in call.

(As narrated to Priti Patkar)

Disclaimer: All names of women and children have been changed in this article.

This post was first published in Prerana’s online resource centre. To know more about human trafficking and issues of child protection in India, read here

You must be to comment.

More from Prerana

Similar Posts

By Akash Raj

By Ritwik Trivedi

By Ritwik Trivedi

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below