A Delhi street where sex workers are forgotten

This story was first published in Women Under Siege Project


— April 22, 2014

With painted faces and shiny clothes, almost every day of their lives these women are forced to sell themselves for sex. Their work and lives are at the bottom of everyone’s concern, but they are still tied to Garstin Bastion Road—commonly known as GB Road—Delhi’s biggest red light area, which lies at the center of a busy commercial corner of the capital.

Estimated by local NGOs at almost 4,000 in number, women live here in 100 kothas, or brothel centers. The dilapidated buildings, dark and gloomy stairways with paint peeling off the walls, and their blank eyes tell a story of neglect and exploitation. Despite efforts by some NGOs to intervene, it’s an exploitation that has continued almost unabated for hundreds of years. It has rarely featured on the government’s agenda. But now, with India’s general elections under way and political parties making big promises to most citizens, this community of sex workers carrying on at the margin of margins is seeking yet again to be heard.

Tasleen Begum cast her vote a few weeks ago but says she’s certain it will not bring about any change. This 45-year-old’s kotha on the third floor of the building resembles a family living room. In that room are her four sons, aged between 5 and 17, studying, playing, and watching TV, insulated from the harsh reality of prostitution. As if they have internalized this as part of their existence. Two slightly younger women also wait for customers in her kotha.

As an old and a physically disabled man comes in, Tasleen leaves her sons and walks with him into a sort of cabin made of cardboard adjoining the room. It is supposed to provide the semblance of privacy. The walls are hardly soundproof and there is just enough space to fit a bed. Pasted on the green walls of the cabin are posters of Bollywood film stars.

About 15 minutes later, Tasleen walks out and sits down next to me. Her children still carry on with their work. She points to the amputated leg of her client and says, “We can’t choose our customers anymore. If we are lucky, we get one customer a day and with no choice we have to give in to all their demands. Some of them want sex without condoms. If I say no, I’ll lose the only 150 rupees (US$2.50) of the day.”

Would legalization offer more rights?

The difficult lives of prostitutes here has given rise to a stronger demand for the complete legalization of prostitution in India. The new law, Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, passed after the anti-rape protests in Delhi last year, has succeeded in criminalizing the traffickers and decriminalizing the women, but the old law—called the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, or ITPA, is still on the books. ITPA criminalizes activities like soliciting sex, pimping, or running brothels. It also says that a client is guilty of consorting with prostitutes and can be charged if he engages in sexual acts with a sex worker within 200 yards of a public place or “notified area.” Taking advantage of this law, the clients are now being harassed and looted by a group of mafia pimps, says a man named Aslam—who occupies an unusual position in the world of prostitution.

Aslam is a pimp but he is also associated with an NGO that is fighting for the rights of the sex workers. He says that before the year 2000 there was a free-flowing line of customers in each of the 100 kothas. But now with a gang of pimps functioning allegedly hand-in-glove with the police, only 30 of the kothas are flourishing, while others are on the verge of shutting down. Money is split between different stakeholders as these women are forced to sell themselves for sex. He believes the livelihood of many sex workers whose families are dependent on their earnings could be saved if legal recognition is given to their work and if they are included under the country’s labor laws.

But Sunitha Krishnan, a women’s rights activist who runs Prajwala, one of the largest anti-trafficking NGOs in India, thinks differently. Krishnan thinks that legalizing prostitution is equal to legitimizing slavery.

“Prostitution per se is an exploitative industry with a nexus of brokers, brothel keepers, pimps, traffickers, and without the active support from enforcement mechanism they cannot sustain,” Krishnan says. “For a woman in prostitution living in this exploitative world, the first near-irreversible damage that she is subjected to is that to survive, she starts normalizing the experience of being exploited. It is this normalization that makes women become spokespersons of these exploiters to demand for legalization.”

Between these demands and debates are the sex workers. “Provide individual working licenses to sex workers” was the first demand in a charter handed over to the Election Commission last month on behalf of the women of GB Road by Bharatiya Patita Uddhar Sabha (BPUS), an NGO working with them for more than three decades. Founder Khairati Lai Bhola says that apart from this, they have also demanded special educational centers and day care for children, pension for old sex workers, and, most important, a health card that would give the women the right to use medical facilities at a government hospital. (While not expressly forbidden from using hospitals, prostitutes are often ignored and left untreated.)

Rabia is 65 years old, has lived for more than four decades on GB road, and has no family of her own. She recounts how a year ago she fell very ill and had constant vaginal bleeding. When she was rushed to the nearby government hospital called Girdharilal Maternity Hospital, she says, they refused to treat her.

“They called me a randi [whore] and refused to touch me, saying I was dirty,” says Rabia. “Even though it was an emergency, I was asked to come back the next day and queue up outside.” She was ultimately taken to a private hospital where she spent every bit of her savings. Rabia breaks down as she says the least that can be done for them is to give them medical facilities.

Dressed in a yellow chiffon sari, with golden eye shadow lining her blue eyes, Rani lives in one of the 30 odd kothas that are doing well. Yet she too has lost confidence in these elections.

“I have voted but I have no hope from any government,” she says. “None of the leaders even came to meet us while campaigning.”

Showing her room, furnished with a personal fridge and a flat-screen TV, she says she spends 8,000 rupees per month (US$130) on just makeup. But behind a confident exterior lies the story of her life, carefully hidden from public view. She crumbles slightly when I ask her the disturbing question, How did she get here? Not wanting to reveal much, Rani says it’s her destiny and that each girl hopes for a family someday but that many are cheated and duped. As I speak to her, I spot many minor girls getting ready for the evening. It’s 6 p.m. and the entrance to this kotha is full of customers eagerly waiting outside. This is in stark contrast to Tasleen’s kotha, where they arrive through the day. And, according to BPUS, it is these flourishing kothas that indulge in trafficking and selling of minor girls.

The girls I meet are mostly from Nepal and West Bengal—some are as young as 13. The painted faces, pushup bras, and flimsy tops revealing their cleavage make them look much older than they really are.

“Kotha numbers 56 and 57 are filled with minor girls,” says Pallabi Gosh, a research and intervention officer with Shakti Vahini, an NGO that has been working in GB Road for 10 years, rescuing minors and reuniting them with their families. “In all, there will be almost 2,000 forced sex workers in GB Road, with 75 percent of them minors between 13 to 14 years of age.”

Gosh has conducted at least 100 rescues in the past two years. “Every raid and every rescue is a huge effort,” he says. “It involves months of information gathering, coordinating with the police and the girl’s family. And yet at times we fail. You cannot even imagine the tunnels that have been created inside these brothels to hide the girls during the raid.”

Every raid isn’t successful, however. The NGOs say the police have to be taken into their confidence to make this work, but they accuse them of leaking information to the pimps and brothel owners before a raid. The business of prostitution is rumored to thrive because of a profitable nexus between the police and brothel owner.

Shahnaz, 18
“I was 17 years old when my boyfriend brought me to Delhi from Kolkata, promising to marry me. Instead he sold me to a madam at GB Road. I don’t know how much the deal was fixed for but when I refused to sell my body, madam, along with five other women, beat me up and said that they have paid lots of money for me. Every day I was forced to take at least 16 to 17 clients. Each one would pay 150 rupees (US$2) directly to my madam. I would get only 20 rupees (less than half a dollar) out of that. It didn’t matter if I was menstruating or unwell, I was forced to take customers. The men would ravage every inch of my body but I never let anyone kiss me. They would take off the condom at the last minute so I couldn’t even revolt. Most of them would abuse me, call me names during sexual intercourse. I have never in my life heard such abuses. The five months I was there was like hell for me. I was finally rescued by an NGO. Now I’m back home in West Bengal but everyone in my neighburhood calls me a whore…I just put my head down and walk away. The NGO representative gave me 1,500 rupees (US$25) once but I’ve got nothing apart from that. What I really want is a job to support myself. Can the government help me? “

Mira, 20
“My stepmother sold me in a kotha when I was just 13 years old. We were very poor and she told my father that she will get me a job in Delhi. We travelled by train from Kadappa in Andhra Pradesh to Delhi. I begged her not to leave me but she didn’t listen. For four years I was forced into prostitution. There were many other girls my age who were there without their will. We were confined within the four walls of the kotha and would never be allowed to step outside. One of my regular customers fell in love with me. When I told him my story, he along with the police and an NGO rescued me. Today I am happily married to him and have a 9-month old daughter. I know not everyone gets lucky like me. I often think about my friends still imprisoned there. It is like a jail.”

What does the future hold?

Very few girls are lucky enough to escape from the brothels of GB road. The few who are rescued find it almost impossible to survive outside. Aslam’s friend, another pimp, tells me: “Raids and rescues disturb the equilibrium of GB road.” He accuses the NGOs working to rescue the girls of doing so only to get funded.

“These NGOs have ruined our business; they also catch women who are willingly in this business,” he says. “As soon as the police are paid, the willing girls are sent back to GB Road from the home. Meanwhile, the NGOs show statistics of rescued girls.”

The man explains that he believes it’s no better for the girls who were forced into prostitution and “rescued,” he says, “After rescuing her, does the NGO give her any other job? Or does the government have any rehabilitation program for her? Seeing no way out, she mostly comes back to GB Road—this time willingly.”

This country will see a new government in a few more weeks but it’s not at all clear that these girls and women will see any improvement to their lives. Their requests for basic and essential needs such as being given health cards for medical care at government hospitals has been pending for a long time with the health ministry. Will the new government address these critical issues?

Tasleen Begum shakes her head in denial. She says that for now she only trusts her sons. Eleven-year-old Kabir looks up at her and says, “I’ll become an architect and take you far, far away from all of this—to Paris, to the real city of love.”

(All of the women’s names have been changed to protect their identity.)

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