It’s mid-morning in Old Delhi and about a dozen boys – some no older than three – are napping inside a run-down room on straw mats, after a snack of chai and biscuits.
Older children holding schoolbooks pass through the doors of the dingy house, ready for their early lunch of rice and dhal.
Just meters away are the children’s mothers, working in one of Delhi’s brothels along the infamous Garstin Bastion Road.
It’s the smoggy city’s largest red light district, a long, grotty road with two- or three-story buildings lining the pavement near the swarming New Delhi rail station, where an endless stream of interstate trains arrive and depart.
It’s along this road that 4,000 women engage in sex work, the majority of whom have been trafficked from states across India including Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar. West Bengal is known as a trafficking hub because of its porous border with Bangladesh and Nepal, while women living in poverty along the banks of the Brahmaputra river in Assam are also at risk.
In 1991, 54-year-old Lalitha, who comes from southwest India and doesn’t use her full name for fear of reprisal from brothel owners, set up Mashaal Kendra, a school for the children of sex workers.
Her mission was to reduce the danger children face in brothels, including exposure to violence and potential sexual abuse, and give them an education.
“Every child has a right to education,” she says.
There are currently 65 children between the ages of one and 15 living at the school; 12 others stay with their mothers or a brothel owner each night.
Those under six attend preschool at Mashaal Kendra, while the older children attend school nearby. Some mothers visit weekly or monthly, others not at all. The fathers are all either pimps or clients, and not in the picture.
Lalitha says that dozens of children who have passed through her door over the years have gone on to higher education – becoming doctors, engineers, teachers and chefs.
Breaking the Cycle
While hard statistics on the number of women who’ve been forced into the sex trade are hard to come by, last year the Global Slavery Index found that 18 million people were living in slavery in India.
Amrita (name changed), 54, was trafficked from Andhra Pradesh, a state along the country’s southeastern coast, to Delhi when she was 13 years old.
She was lured from her village by a neighbor who promised that her Bollywood crush was waiting in Delhi to marry her. But instead of finding teenage love, she spent the next 35 years working in brothels along Garstin Bastion Road.
For the first six months, she says, she was repeatedly raped by various men to “prepare me for the brothel.”
“Every day I was forced to have sex. I was bleeding everywhere,” she says.
When she entered the brothel system, whatever money she earned was taken by the brothel owner.
“When I was there I was tortured, had no food and it was very dangerous,” she said.
“It’s definitely better today, but society has to rethink why this is happening.”
Amrita had three children, one of whom grew up with Lalitha, and today Amrita works as an outreach worker with poor communities after escaping the brothel with the help of a client.
She’s proud her two daughters have not fallen into trafficking.
The Cashless Economy
Late last year, the government, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took 86% of India’s cash out of circulation overnight.
The decision left the informal economy, which relies solely on cash, wavering.
The government scrapped the country’s two most used banknotes – 500 rupees (US$7.50) and 1,000 rupees (US$15) – in the name of fighting corruption and crippling criminal groups, including traffickers, by voiding their cash stockpiles.
While some NGOs, including the Rescue Foundation, a Mumbai-based organization working to rehabilitate girls who have been trafficked, believe demonetization has reduced the number of women and girls being sold into the sex industry, other advocates, like Lalitha, paint a different picture. She argues the financial impact of demonetization on rural poor communities has pushed new girls into the trade,
“If a man wants sex, he will come regardless of money. It’s simply not true that trafficking has reduced because of demonetization,” she says.
“Men are still coming, of course.”
Lalitha says the decree has forced women already in the industry to work for credit or for free. It’s also meant that any secret stockpiles of cash women had saved is now void.
Shafiq Khan, from Empower People, an NGO working to protect trafficked women and girls, says there was no data to indicate trafficking had decreased and corruption had been stamped out.
“People must be aware that sex trafficking in India is a poor man’s occupation – they work with any type of cash and often barter by exchanging things against girls,” he says.
“Sex trafficking is an informal criminal industry … pimps are well connected with police and are often themselves very powerful.”
Educating Girls to Stop Trafficking
Rather than the government focus on fighting corruption, Lalitha wants the focus to be on prevention. That means educating girls in rural areas, she says.
“Women and girls are brought from rural areas here. There’s no job opportunities for them – there’s either droughts or floods,” she says of those reliant on income from agriculture.
“Most brothel-based women aren’t educated, so first there needs to be education. Second, we need to change the perception that women can be sold as commercial commodities. We need to raise awareness and question why girls are sold and allowed to be raped and become victims of domestic violence.”
Back at Mashaal Kendra, the young boys have woken from their naps and are ready for their afternoon preschool session.
When asked if the children are well-behaved, Lalitha chuckles: “Kids will be kids.”