In more than 40 years in journalism, there has been only one story that haunts me like a recurring nightmare. It was on child trafficking in the brothels of Mumbai. Child prostitution is rampant in our big cities but Mumbai is believed to be the centre for trafficking children. Today I am telling you the story of the girls I met in Mumbai’s brothels in the hope that the MeToo movement might benefit them. There is much that can be done by MeToo pioneers to improve conditions in the workplace for these most voiceless and vulnerable of India’s working women. And, since Maneka Gandhi has shown such zealous support for the MeToo movement, there is much that she could do as Minister for Women and Child Development.
First, let me tell you the stories of girls with names like Rubina, Shama, Babita and Laavanya. They are all rescued child prostitutes. And, I would never have met them without the help of the police. Child prostitutes are heavily guarded because it is on their earnings that brothels run, since most customers in these places think of adult women as too old. I only got a chance to get a glimpse of this murky, evil underworld because at the time I did the story, more than a decade ago, the police were trying to end child trafficking. And, then Mumbai’s police commissioner, Anami Roy, asked if I would like to witness a raid. I used to do a programme for NDTV then called Indianama and was more than willing. So along with my old comrade-in-arms, Ajmal Jami, and his crew, I showed up at police headquarters early on the morning of the raid.
In the garden, I spotted a group of young girls among whom was Rubina. She had skin the colour of sandalwood, big beautiful eyes and thick hair that hung down to her shoulders. She was coming with us, she said, because the brothel being raided first that day was one in which she had been imprisoned for two years. How did she get there? ‘I lived with my parents on a pavement near Nizamuddin’s dargah. I was playing outside one day when a car stopped, some men pulled me into it, made me unconscious and when I woke up I was in this brothel. I am going back to find the telephone number I wrote on a piece of paper. It belongs to some friends of my parents and if I call them they will help me go home.’
So Rubina came with us to an ugly, dilapidated building in the heart of Mumbai, up a dank, dark staircase, onto a narrow balcony that looked upon a rooftop covered in rotting food, used condoms, soiled women’s clothes and sandals. When the police officer forced open the blue door that led to the brothel, Rubina rushed into a tiny cubicle and searched under its narrow wooden bed for a makeup box. She emptied its contents onto the bed and searched among the cheap creams, lipsticks and boxes of face powder but could not find her note. Her eyes welled up as she continued to search, but Ian Dowling, who ran the rescue home she now lived in, whispered, ‘It’s just as well. She is HIV positive.’
Dowling, a born-again Christian who himself had been a street child, had taken more than 60 rescued prostitutes into his home in New Mumbai.
The next day Jami and I went to see this rescue home. And, it was here that I met girls who had been trafficked, brutalised, tortured or just sold into prostitution by indigent parents. Shama’s story was the most heartbreaking of many heartbreaking stories.
‘I was 10 when my mother died,’ she said. ‘When my father married again, he did not want me or my little sisters around so he sent us to an aunt in Mumbai. She separated us and I was given work as a maid in the house of a family from Dubai. They made me work naked and punished me by beating me up and making me drink urine. When one day the lady beat me too hard on my head and I became unconscious, she threw me into the street. Someone took me to the brothel.’ Shama’s skull was half shaved, where a raw wound festered.
I no longer am in touch with Ian Dowling. I think he may have closed his home for want of funds. The police admit that their biggest problem is that when child prostitutes are rescued, there is nowhere for them to go. Government shelters are places of further exploitation, families will not take back their girls and so the solution is to build thousands more homes. Now that there is a MeToo movement, can survivors take on the responsibility of running these homes? Can Maneka Gandhi help fund them?
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@ tavleen_singh