Freeing India’s Sex Slaves

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Young girls in India's tribal villages grow up in poverty and are often vulnerable to dubious job offers. Photo: Laura Sheahen/CRS

So this is where my work for Catholic Relief Services had led me: to a brothel. I was in the middle of a red light district in the go-go city of Mumbai on India’s west coast. The social worker we were with strolled casually into a shed-like doorway and starting chatting with one of the women. I stood tensely, aware that in the metal cubby right behind me a young woman in a spangled sari was sleeping soundly.

It was midday and there was no “activity” going on. But the tiny, sardine-tin brothel — its walls painted an incongruous robin’s egg blue — was appalling enough. Each woman slept and worked in a metal room that was perhaps eight feet by six feet, far smaller than walk-in closets I’ve seen in America. A footlocker was on a shelf above the narrow plank-like bed. Sometimes, my guide told me, the women’s children were kept under the bed at night — occasionally drugged so as not to make noise that would disturb clients.

When the social worker — a Catholic Relief Services partner — walks through this neighborhood, she’s focused on how to get the women’s kids in school. She’d seen it all. I hadn’t. It was unnerving to think how many women were in the brothels that honeycombed these alleys.

Worst of all was thinking how many were there against their will. My guides and I walked out of the brothel quietly — it seemed easy enough. A few children and older women on the side street stared at us. We kept on for a few blocks until we reached our car.

Hundreds of young women can’t walk away. “There are henchmen hanging around to catch any prostitute who tries to escape,” says Priti Patkar matter-of-factly. For twenty-five years, Priti and her husband have worked to save the thousands of teenage girls who are brought to the red-light district under duress, often tricked by acquaintances or even family members. The girls are held for years, working as unpaid prostitutes to make money for owners who buy and sell them. The Patkars head up Prerana — “Inspiration” — a CRS partner that helps girls who are rescued.

The young women are physically abused, often beaten, sometimes drugged. But perhaps even more lasting is the psychological damage that Prerana’s social workers try to overcome…

“At the shelter, I was scared of everything and everyone,” says Rekha. “Everyone had cheated me. I thought, ‘What if these women also sell me somewhere?'”

But gradually they do learn to trust.

Often the girls are freed during police raids. Not all police are trustworthy, but when authorities receive reports that underage, unpaid prostitutes are being held, they will sometimes intervene.

To hell and back

Rekha*, now 20, wasn’t sure she would ever escape. She grew up in Nepal and, at age 14, said yes when a friend’s mother urged her to leave her country and find domestic work abroad. But there was no maid job. Rekha soon found herself in a dark room with many other girls. “I cried a lot. I didn’t even know how to speak Hindi,” she remembers. “I met another Nepalese girl, and she said, ‘They’ve sold you.'”

Over the next year and a half, Rekha was sold into three different brothels. In the last one, the girls were hidden under floorboards during raids. “There were ten girls there — it was so cramped you couldn’t breathe,” she tells me. One day, she convinced a client to let her use his cell phone. “The police came. I had told them where the hiding places were.” Rekha and 24 girls were freed.

The young women are physically abused, often beaten, sometimes drugged. But perhaps even more lasting is the psychological damage that Prerana’s social workers try to overcome. Some of the girls barely speak when they arrive at government shelters after raids. “At the shelter, I was scared of everything and everyone,” says Rekha. “Everyone had cheated me. I thought, ‘What if these women also sell me somewhere?'”

But gradually they do learn to trust. Prerana and other groups give them psychosocial support, legal help if they choose to prosecute the people who sold them, and job training. At the shelters, the girls take literacy classes as well as vocational courses. Most of all, they’re given what Americans would call normalcy: birthday cakes, awards if they do well in their tasks, lots of smiles and jokes.

In one Prerana shelter, 20 young women sit on the floor sorting herbs as part of their catering training. They talk about movie stars and the dance routine they’re planning for an upcoming competition. When I confess I don’t know the Indian celebrities featured on the shelter wall, they’re astonished. “You really need to see the movie ‘My Name Is Khan,” several advise me. They seem like regular, happy teens, not girls who have been to hell and back.

Rekha is married now; she met her husband in the Mumbai clothing store where she got a job after finishing a Prerana course in fashion and tailoring. Before getting married, she brought him to meet the Prerana staff so they could check him out. “He’s very sensitive and good,” she tells me. “He always says he doesn’t want to see me sad.”

The image of the woman sleeping in the metal cell doesn’t leave me, but balanced against it are the faces of dozens of teens that now have a different future ahead of them. “I’m putting the bad days behind me,” says Rekha. “I know there are many happy days to come.”

* Name has been changed

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