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Mumbai prostitutes

My first time in a brothel

By Katherine Maxwell-Rose | 03 Mar 2016

Katherine Maxwell-Rose recently visited one of Tearfund’s partner organisations, working in the notorious red-light districts of Mumbai, India. Here she shares her experience of entering a brothel for the first time.

We walk up an unassuming wooden staircase, tucked away behind a market. It’s dark and the staircase is narrow. Through metal grills lining the walls, light streams in on women hanging around outside their rooms, leaning on the doorways, looking towards the outside world. Some have their hair unusually short, most are in baggy day dresses. Young boys in white vests and jeans sit on the window ledges, watching everything. The colours are dusty; blue, pink, grey, orange.

Momentarily it feels like stepping into a film, or a photograph I have seen before and lodged somewhere in the back of my mind.

Space is tight, women are crammed in the rooms together, sleeping on the floor or slowly rising. I feel claustrophobic, breathless.

ABNORMAL NORMALITY

Within these walls, each woman I catch a glimpse of could sleep with as many as 40 men in one night. Some have had over 30 abortions. The sex workers and their pimps have often been trafficked. Most experience extreme violence and abuse. 80 to 90 per cent will be HIV positive.

Minors, those under the age of 16, are trapped in cages, locked behind doors or under floorboards. The children of the workers hide under the bed while customers are entertained. To me, it may feel like a film set or a static photograph, but this is an actual place with thousands living and breathing its reality everyday. For many here, it is life beyond the walls which seems unreal, unattainable.

Shreds of normality exist; lunch is being cooked up, washing is being done and TVs are on. One woman has a face pack on.

We go into one of the rooms; inside two divisions with beds in them, a tiny kitchen, a mirror, a gas cooker. The women gather around, waking up, fixing their hair. On a small ledge a newborn baby sleeps, oblivious to the world surrounding her. She is three days old. The young mother looks tired; no-one gushes over the serene child. Everyone looks exhausted. This is a muted world.

The team from Oasis, Tearfund’s partner who engage every day with this setting, in contrast, are animated and bursting with stories. They have seen women walk out if this place into new lives, young girls rescued and rehabilitated, and customers vow never to return.

Trafficked Woman photo

BACK FROM THE DEAD

Michael, the Project Executive tells me of one woman who crawled into his drop-in centre on all fours, after being locked out of her brothel because they thought she was dead. All she could say was: “I’m going to die.” Eventually he was able to find somewhere safe for her to stay and help with crucial medical treatment.

Now the woman is strong and healthy. When she walked back into the brothel to collect some of her belongings those who had known her before were scared because they thought she was a ghost. They whispered among themselves: “Wasn’t she already dead that day when she was thrown out?

The Oasis team are full of grace; their compassion extends to every person they encounter. Sex worker, male, female, young, old, pimp, customer, to them each one is the same - unique, loved and capable of so much more. Indiscriminate in their work they long to see the whole red-light area restored and each one set free from its trap.

'When she walked back into the brothel to collect some of her belongings those who had known her before were scared, whispering 'Wasn’t she already dead?''

SHAFTS OF LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

As we leave the brothel and re-enter the brightness of the afternoon, I ask our guide Sonu, a nurse who works in the building, if all the surrounding buildings are the same as the one we have visited?

‘Yes, all the same.’

I look around, each building contains hundreds of rooms, each room a group of women some seen, some unseen. All around me are women and men too, waiting, preparing for another long night of work. Some scared, some numb, some under-age, some old and weary.

The streams of light which flood in through those metal grills, also come from those who walk the dank corridors everyday breathing out newness, transformation and hope.

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Photo of Katherine Maxwell-Rose

Written by Katherine Maxwell-Rose