Mumbai, India - Women of all ages crouch in a foul-smelling corridor, awaiting clients. Through slightly ajar doors on both sides, girls can be seen lying on tiny bunk beds inside crowded five-by-three metre rooms. There are no windows, and strips of sari dresses are scattered across the flooded floor.
"I was brought here when I was 15. My family didn't have earnings and I was promised a good job in Mumbai," said 30-year-old Rani. One man sold me for 10,000 rupees [$160] to the gharwali [brothel owner]. She locked me up in the room and beat me until I accepted working for her."
Her family still doesn't know she was trafficked into one of the world's largest brothels.
Located in the heart of India's commercial capital, in the shadows of the gleaming offices and apartment complexes that are rapidly becoming part of Mumbai's rising skyline, Kamathipura is a network of 14 lanes, where roughly 7,000 sex workers and 10,000 children dwell in miserable conditions. According to the US Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, forced labour is the largest trafficking problem in India.
The country's laws have had little effect, according to some critics. The Global Slavery Index 2013 reports that cases of women and children sexual commercially exploited are not prosecuted by the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. The index also shows that around half of the 28 million people living globally in slavery are here in the world's largest democracy. A large proportion of this is related to sex trafficking and prostitution, which have been recognised as a widespread problem inside India.
Forced prostitution has been fuelling the sex industry in Kamathipura for more than 200 years, despite local reports blessing the benefits of urban development in the area. Sex trafficking in the red light district in south Mumbai is ruled by the ancient karza (bond) system. Young victims are sold for 50,000-100,000 rupees ($800-$1,600) to gharwalis and kept under captivity in pinjara (cages), forced into sex labour and forced to pay nonexistent or inflated "debts".
The price of girls depends upon clients' demands, based on origin and age. "Nepalese Sony was brought here when she was 14 to save money for a month and support her family," said Shailesh Sheety, of a local aid organisation. "Her first clients paid 35,000 rupees and more. After almost three months, the gharwali only gave her 50,000 rupees."
Nepalese and Bangladeshi girls are commonly found in Mumbai's red light district. The latter are reluctant to reveal their nationality out of fear of being jailed. Bangladeshi sex worker Sopra Shaikh, 28, explained: "Once I got caught by the police and was kept in jail for three months. My cousin brought me to the brothel and after being freed from jail I moved to Kamathipura for good."
Previous bilateral attempts between India and Bangladesh to stop sex trafficking have proven to be futile, as existing law criminalises victims, rather than helping them. Indian law prosecutes undocumented migration and fraud - despite the Ministry of Home Affairs urging state governments to stop targeting victims of sex trafficking.
Ageing steadily "frees" women in Kamathipura's slavery system. As they grow older, they're less desired by clients. The adhiya (shared) system forces them to distribute part of their earnings between the gharwali and the dalal (pimp) to cover accommodation and "protection", leaving them with barely 40 percent of their income. Nobody escapes the vicious cycle in Kamathipura.
"I'm the gharwali and I do the best running the business for my three girls", explains sex worker Rani, who was trafficked in the past.
As former sex workers usually turn into gharwalis, sons of prostitutes may also become dalals. Ajay Paswan, 14, doesn't look much different than any other Indian of his age but he controls four girls and doesn't justify himself: "I want to earn enough money to get married. I don't know how to do anything else. Here I just have to do some errands, like sweeping the floor, and wait for clients to pay me."
On top of the money they have to share with pimps and brothel owners, sex workers also have to pay bribes to local police officers. The US Trafficking in Persons Report also states that Indian prostitution-related laws are used as a source of income for corrupt police.
Initiatives to fight the sex trade
Anti-Human Trafficking Units have been established around the country. In Maharashtra, Mumbai's state, they have been working since 2007 to coordinate governmental and non-governmental efforts to rescue trafficked victims, mainly young girls. Oasis, a local organisation, has helped with the rescue of 215 sex workers and children from slavery in Kamathipura. It was set up in 1994 to provide medical care, reintegration and counselling programmes to trafficking victims in Kamathipura.
After establishing contact with pimps and verifying the presence of minors, we would report to the police at the state level, otherwise local police would rapidly inform the pimps for 10,000 rupees.
"After establishing contact with pimps and verifying the presence of minors, we would report to the police at the state level, otherwise local police would rapidly inform the pimps for 10,000 rupees ($160). If there's any leak in the chain, the area would be blackout and you wouldn't find any minor in the area," explains Oasis worker Archana Kumar.
The agreement is common among grassroots organisations, in a country where police and government are considered the most corrupt institutions by almost half of the population, according to a survey conducted by Transparency International.
The effectiveness of anti-trafficking measures is also thought to be reduced by Indian state governments that apply national directives unevenly.
"Some programmes are working for some states and some others don't because of the slow arrival of funds," said Priti Patkar, co-founder of the Prerana Anti-Trafficking Centre and a professor of children's rights at Amrita University. Prerana is one of the grassroots organisations offering care centres for children and training workshops for sex workers inside Kamathipura.
Recent legal developments are promising. Leading the governmental response to gang-rape incidents, the Criminal Law Amendments Act establishes diverse measures to fight violence against women. This law also tackles the issue of trafficking by broadening trafficking-related crimes and establishing more stringent sentences for traffickers.
Popularly known as the Anti-Rape Act, the law passed the Indian parliament in April 2013, and covers "any act of physical exploitation or any form of sexual exploitation".
More importantly, it stipulates harsher penalties for traffickers, ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, and sets out prison sentences for public servants and police officers - as well as ordinary citizens - involved in the sexual exploitation of trafficked victims.
However, it can take a long time to evaluate the impact of new laws. "The enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012) also established severe punishment against perpetrators, but the police are not aware. So we organise rising awareness programmes among the community," said Mugdha Dandekar, the Prerana coordinator in Kamathipura.
I was still breastfeeding my second baby when I got pregnant. I wanted to abort but was too late. Sometimes, clients don't allow us to use condoms.
Local organisations operating in Kamathipura focus their efforts on improving the wellbeing of the most vulnerable people inside the red light district; mothers and children. Distribution of condoms and raising awareness about STD and HIV/AIDS among both sex workers and clients plays a major part, but is not easy. Babipa Shaikh, 30, explains: "I was still breastfeeding my second baby when I got pregnant. I wanted to abort but was too late. Sometimes, clients don't allow us to use condoms." Babipa is eight months pregnant and can not afford to stop working.
Sanghramitra, a community organisation, launched an innovative project aiming at establishing an economic hub. The sex workers-led organisation opened a bank in 2005, recognised by the Bank of India, so that women from Kamathipura could keep their savings. "Prostitutes can now refuse to have sex without protection because they've savings in this bank and they don't need to take that risk because of money," explained Sanghramitra manager Sarita Tadkie.
As most sex workers here, and their children, don't hold birth certificates, they also created their own ID card. This project has helped many to get loans and open their own successful businesses. "I was given a 15,000 rupees ($240) loan and started a mobile store in the 13th lane which became a successful video store," said one of the beneficiaries of the project. Sangeli Bank has 4,600 accounts opened so far and, since 2012, it has also created accounts for sex workers' children.
Poverty is at the root of slavery and enforced sex labour but personal problems also contribute to the slavery system in Kamathipura. "Adjyostna, 28, is pregnant but has another baby boy of two years old and can't afford life for the two of them. She wants to give away her future baby for 10,000 rupees ($160) to survive," said Oasis' social worker Shraddha.
Grassroots organisations such as this offer vocational training programmes for sex workers so that they can gain skills to make a living outside of prostitution, and also provide education and shelter-homes for their children. "I live with my family in the 11th lane. I want to be an engineer. But I don't think I'd be able to achieve that without the help from NGOs," says 11-year-old Jilu Shaikh. Kamathipura's children are at high risk of being drawn to the spiral of the slavery industry.
Despite reports confirming that Indian cities and states with a strong presence of non-governmental actors offer better protection to trafficking victims, the isolated efforts of local organisations will not change the situation quickly, given the scale of the task. Neither will national laws change the fate of generations born and raised in modern slavery in Kamathipura. It will take a combination of grassroots activities and effective legislation and enforcement at the national and state levels.
Fatima Shaikh, 30, was begging in the street after her mother's death left her with no money. "Some clients steal my money and I barely have savings after being working in the brothel for ten years," she said. "I hope I can get out of this place. I just don't want my daughter to end up doing the same."
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