No choice but to take GB Road

FLESH TRADE: SEX WORKERS IN DELHI LEAD A HARD LIFE, AT RISK OF DISEASE, EXPLOITATION

Eighteen-year-old Hema was rescued from a tunnel full of cockroaches at one of the brothels on GB Road with the help of an NGO earlier this month.

Such tunnels are specially built to hide trafficked girls. When it was broken into, the first ones to rush outside were swarms of small cockroaches, after which Hema was taken out.

She was sold off to GB Road after being duped and brought to the capital from her home at South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. She has been reunited with her family now and doesn’t want to recount the horrors of her days in Delhi.

According to experts, 95 per cent women at the brothels in GB (Garstin Bastion) Road or Swami Shradhanand Marg are trafficked. But not all are as lucky as Hema. Women like Rupa and Asha were trafficked in their teens and have been in the red light area for over 25 years now.

One common factor that binds them is their story of how they ended up at GB Road.

“I used to sell vegetables near a railway station in Nabadwip in West Bengal. An old woman said I will earn much more in Delhi. I left my one-year-old daughter with my mother and came to Delhi. My family was in extreme poverty and I was young and naive,” says 40-year-old Rupa. She even remembers the date on which she was trafficked to Delhi.

“It was January 26. I will complete 20 years in this profession next year,” she says without a hint of hesitation in her tone.

The comfort stems from the fact that after so many years, women like Rupa have equated prostitution with their life and know no other source of livelihood. In fact Rupa did get a chance to go back to her village after 14 long years, when she had gained the trust of her ‘manager’. By then, she was “too old” to think of any new source of income.

“I went back and realised there is nothing in this village for me. My family had thought I was dead. Everyone’s lives had changed and I was too old to start something new to earn money. I used to cry daily when I was trafficked but I had spent my whole life in the capital, what would have I done in the village? I came back to GB Road after one year,” she says.

Asha, 48, narrates, “I was married when I was 13 and my husband left me after seven years. I had two kids then and a dalal told me he will get me married again in Delhi. I initially refused but he pursued me for two years. By then I was unable to feed my kids, so I said yes. I was kept in a rented room for some days and the man I was supposed to marry used to visit me occasionally as he was already living with another woman. After some days they stopped giving me food, took my son away and said I will survive only if I went to GB Road. I was left with no choice”.

Both her sons were living with her at the kotha but later found their own place. The plight of sex workers can be understood by the fact that they either have to stay away from their kids or “lose respect in their eyes” by telling them about their profession.

“When my sons came to know that I am a prostitute, the elder one beat me up. But later they fell into bad company at the kotha. Now both are sitting idle and don’t want to work as they know that I will feed them,” she says.


Similarly, Maya was brought to Delhi from Bihar on the pretext of a job offer but as soon as she reached here, her documents were snatched away and she was locked in a room at one of the brothels. She was repeatedly raped for days and then “presented” before customers when she was “ready”.

Now, the women do not know a life beyond the 94 brothels in GB Road. The farthest they can remember is going to West Bengal’s Sonagachi area, said to be Asia’s largest red light district, for “training”.

Human trafficking is one of the largest organised crimes in India. According to government data, over 1.5 lakh children went missing in 2014 alone. With successive governments failing to combat it, the trafficking business has grown and traffickers have adopted new styles of functioning to dodge police.

“Earlier the girls were directly brought to the kothas in Delhi. But now, they come to Delhi via circuitous routes, taken to some other place like Kotla Mubarakpur and tortured there and then sent to GB Road,” says Tamanna Khan, project manager at Targeted Intervention (TI), GB Road, a project of the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), which works for controlling the spread of HIV among the most vulnerable groups.

“When we talk to these girls, most of them tell us they were brought to Delhi from their villages by Raju. So, Raju is a very common name adopted by those hired by the traffickers in Delhi. They are lured into this because of their adverse circumstances,” she adds.

Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini NGO, which helped in rescuing Hema, says traffickers these days have reserved train tickets unlike in the past to avoid suspicion. They have bank accounts for bank transfers online instead of exchanging cash, and they don’t keep a SIM card with them for more than two weeks.

“They take advantage of extreme poverty after natural disasters like cyclonic storm Aila in West Bengal and the Nepal earthquake,” he says. Khan shares that initially the girls are intimidated to an extent that it is difficult to approach them for any information and even convince them for regular health tests.

As she speaks of the high-risk infection, two girls in their early 20s come in. One of them clearly looks weak. “Her health is fading for the past several days but she was reluctant to come for a check-up here. Her friend finally cajoled her.”

“If their ‘madam’ comes to know that any of the girls has HIV, she tries to hush it and even doesn’t allow us to give medicines as it will lead to a loss of reputation for their brothel and bring disgrace. They live in unhygienic conditions, 30-40 people are forced to live in a room which has a capacity for just 10-15 people. Plus, there is no proper ventilation in rooms. The wooden cabins where the business is performed are enough for just one person to fit himself,” she says.

The young girls have to cater to at least 25 clients a day. “If the brothel owner has bought a girl for Rs 5 lakh, she will make her entertain these many clients till she recovers at least double of that amount,” says Swati Maliwal, chairperson of Delhi Commission for Women (DCW).

Vicious cycle
With no sound rehabilitation policy in place for them, sex workers continue in the profession as they feel they don’t have any other option. “It is a vicious cycle. The trafficked becomes the trafficker after a point of time. Their sons become pimps. There is no end to this,” Maliwal says.
 
She agrees that both the central and the state government have failed to bring out a rehabilitation policy till now. In fact it was only after the intervention of the DCW that the Delhi government’s state-level coordination committee on trafficking met for the first time this month, even though it was reconstituted in 2012.

The committee is planning to rehabilitate 50 women on a pilot basis by giving them professional placements instead of just skill development.

“The problem is there is no synergy between various stakeholders such as police, anti-trafficking units, welfare department and civil society. Everyone works in isolation. On the other hand, the traffickers are a united lot and their network is very strong,” Rishi Kant says.

“There can be various options for rehabilitation like handing over Mother Dairy outlets to these women, giving them a small house, employing them in government canteens, etc,” he adds.

The middle-aged sex workers, especially, should be rehabilitated to stop second-generation prostitution. As it is the number of clients for them is dwindling. “The number varies between one and three these days. Why should they choose us when there are young girls available?” says Rupa.

The women say they have to give some money to police every month because it “helps” whenever young boys in inebriated state get into fights in the brothels. They admit feeling “disgusted” when a 19-year-old boy comes to them.

“I keep thinking that he is my son’s age. But what can I do? I have to earn money. As it is women our age earn only Rs 150-200 per person and we hardly get any clients,” says Asha.
Rupa asks, almost rhetorically, if a sex worker can really choose her partner. Asha quickly reminds her they have never had a “choice in life”.

Names of sex workers have been changed.

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