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.
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.