Rescue the Children
Danny Smith of Jubilee Action a signature partners of Bombay Teen Challenge journeys into the dark world of Bombay’s red light district
Asha’s mother was a prostitute who lived on 14th Street, deep in the heart of Bombay’s
notorious red light district.
She grew up in a cramped squalid room, virtually a cage, where her mother serviced between 10
and 25 customers a day.
Most of the time, Asha, and her younger sister and brother, were forced to loiter in the street, but
many nights she fell asleep curled up in a corner of the room, waiting for the last customer to
When her mother died, there was almost no time for tears. The brothel owners moved a young
Nepali girl into the cage and Asha and her young family were dumped onto the street outside the
A make-shift canvas hut granted sanctuary from the scorching summer heat and the driving
The young urchin family ate leftovers given them by friendly prostitutes, scrounged scraps from
the rubbish dump and begged for paisa from passing trade. Their survival is a remarkable record
of resilience amidst grinding despair and degradation.
The "brothelers" also kept a custodial eye on the girls, aware that, inevitably, the children of
prostitutes always followed their parents into the sexual market.
The word on the street is that Asha’s father, a taxi driver whom she rarely sees, has been
negotiating a deal with one of the "brothelers". Asha is a strikingly attractive girl and it’s said
that he could sell her for £6,000. That’s a small fortune, equivalent to several years salary for
him, money he just can’t refuse.
Devaraj, an Indian church worker, was my guide to Bombay as we journeyed down the back
streets and alleys on a tour that I’m unlikely to forget.
We drove to the red light district as light was fading. The streets were crowded and dirty. A
woman scavenges through rubbish that is piled up at least 15ft high, sprawling everywhere. A
child runs across and kicks the garbage playfully. No one stares; no one’s surprised.
I could tell we were close, as girls with heavy make-up in brightly coloured saris lined the street
corners in a silent parade.
14th Street snakes its way about one hundred yards down, a muddy road with narrow houses on
the left, mud huts and make-shift shelters on the right. Ramshackle wooden buildings. Faces at
windows, hands outstretched from four stories high. On the street, girls with painted faces, brightly coloured bangles that jingle, jangle. The eyes look at you, wink enticingly but appear
Devaraj, evecutive director of Bombay Teen Challenge estimates that about 3,000 girls live on 14th Street and that the Kamatipura area is home
to about 20,000 prostitutes. Bombay, with a population of 13 million, is said to have over
The brothelers and prostitutes now called "commercial sex workers" know him by name after
three years of working in the area. But to girls like Asha, he’s a friend, and possibly her only
hope of ever leaving the street.
A Nepalese woman brothel owner complains about a recent police raid. "They took over a
thousand girls from this areas, many of them were minors," she mutters. Some say, in all, over
6,000 girls were arrested.
"They pulled young kids from under the beds," an old prostitute with the dye half removed from
her hair, confirms.
The brothelers in the community have been protesting, hatching plans. They’re outraged that the
police could have played such a rule. It’s rumoured that the thriving sex industry continues with
the connivance of the police authorities.
Speculation is that the police were seeking someone in particular. One girl caught in the raid is
said to be the daughter of a police inspector. Others say that the clean-up is due to forthcoming
elections. Brothelers are angry, said to be demonstrating, demanding the return of their girls.
Hands and elbows lean on the window ledges. Faces peer down. Everyone seems to know
Devaraj. One girl in a purple sari with bright red lipstick walks across and tells Devaraj that she’s
been ill for several days, complains of pain in her throat. Another woman pleads with him for
help. She’s another painted lady, but older. There are many children in the area, skipping,
kicking a tin can, oblivious to everything else around them.
THE GIRLS TELL THEIR STORY OF ABDUCTION AND ABUSE.
Around the corner, in St. Anthony’s School, permission is granted to meet some of the girls
rescued in the raid. We’re led down a corridor; stern police open the padlocked gate.
In the playground, a slender girl is dancing suggestively, her body swaying to the rhythm in her
head. She races over to us and I’m astonished to see just how young she is. She flirts, winks,
smiles, casual in her manner. Her name is Sharlinka.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"Fourteen?" It is more of a question than a statement. She came form Andhra Pradesh and was told she would be given a job but was sold to a brothel
owner. She thinks she’s been held captive for five years but isn’t sure.
"I had to work hard. The men were fat, old and smelly. I was forced to do some disgusting
things. I wasn’t allowed out for 3 years."
Police stand by and listen to everything we say.
Within minutes, there are several girls around us. Most are young, pretty, several are Nepalese.
Another young girl with sad eyes tells us her story.
"I’m from Calcutta. I don’t have any relatives, only a mother, but I’m not sure where she is now.
I drifted around and ended up in Bombay. I was caught one night by several men, they told me
they’d find work for me and I’d have a good life but I was sold into slavery."
She has beautiful features but a sad expression. When asked her age she speculates, "I’m about
14 or 15, maybe even 16, but I don’t really know."
This girl says she doesn’t want to go back to the brothel. She looks worried. "What will happen
to us. Is there anywhere for girls like us to go to? Is there anyone who wants us? Will they force
us to go back to the brothel? I don’t have anyone in the world to go to, no one in the world to
care for me. No one knows whether I live or die."
As we talk, she listens intently; her eyes widen in silent wonder. It’s as though she’s hearing
about some extraordinary discovery or the plot of an intriguing film. She hangs on he (Devaraj’s)
every word. Tears form in her eyes. She bites her fingernails.
Anu is plump with large brown eyes that twinkle. She has a smooth skin and a playfulness about
"A woman came to our village and told my parents that she could find me work," she says
quietly. "When I reached Bombay I was trapped. I didn’t want to stay but they wouldn’t let me
leave the brothel. I’ve been her for two years."
Girls from Nepal walk by. Shawls covering their head, eyes downcast. They’re obviously teenagers.
DEBT BONDAGE AND SEXUAL SLAVERY
Girls are trafficked from Nepal by underworld gangs with police consent. They’re held in a slave
market and brothelers visit the slave auction to buy the girls. From Bombay, some of the girls -
and boys - find their way down to Goa, now India’s most popular tourist resort.
The girls sold to the brothels must work to pay off their debt. Customers pay the brothel and the
girls survive on tips. This debt bondage keeps them in virtual slavery. The girls are held in
appalling circumstances, beaten and abused, with little opportunity of ever being free from this
vicious circle of slavery.
In many cases, the girls have no idea when their debt will be a0pid off - if ever - and they are
resigned to a life of servitude.
Girls charge Rs 50 (£1) and Rs 250 (£5) and yes, everything is available. There are on limits to
these sexual borders.
Bombay’s red light district has a heavy gang influence and there are many stories of shoot-outs
Suicides are spoken of factually. Very few get away. Anyone caught trying to escape will be
beaten severely when they return. One of the girls talks about Mina who tried to jump out of a
top floor window but fell and broke her back. She had been caged for 7 years forbidden to leave
her room. Usually the girls are kept for 2 to 3 years before they’re allowed out on their own.
AIDS is a time bomb waiting to happen, an explosion predicted by statisticians that is destined to
turn India into one of the major crisis capitals of the world.
Predictably it isn’t hard to find statistics. Twenty percent of Bombay’s commercial sex workers
are thought to be under 18 and up to fifty per cent of these children are thought to be HIV
positive.To the girls themselves Aids isn’t such a threat. They have problems staying alive. Staying fed
tonight. Tomorrow is twenty-four hours away.
"I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE BROTHEL"
We walk towards another group who are grouped around the swings in the playground. A tall
Nepalese looking girl stares at us as we approach. "What are you doing her?" she says
She’s about 17, tough, and clearly an influence among the other girls. "The police grabbed us,
beat us, we’re held here like criminals. Don’t ask us any questions. I want to go back to my
friends, back to my house, I don’t care what people say. It was the only home I know. They’ll
look after me, I know they will. Don’t try and talk us out of it. I hate it here."
The girls around her listen, some nod their heads in assent. "We had to work hard but they gave
us food. What’s so wrong with what we were doing? We’re held her like prisoners. We might as
well be dead."
Devaraj addresses her, but hopes his words will reach the others. "Speak for yourself," he insists,
"but allow the others to decide which is the prison." He agrees that the authorities should have
explained the purpose of the raid and given them information about their future. "Don’t become
a slave. Think of what will happen when you’re older and no one wants your body. You’ll be
thrown away like an old dress."
The girls from Nepal giggle. I try to communicate with hand signals. "How old are you?" I ask a
slender girl wrapped in a blue shawl? The reply again, is a question. "16? 17?" One of the girls
plays with the strap of my bag. Her eyes suggestive, alluring. Another girl scolds her. "Behave
yourself". They giggle and slap each other playfully. It’s evident that they’re very young girls,
and this is like a game to them.
Around the courtyard, girls are skipping, playing chase, a childhood game remembered. At the
opposite end, five girls hang around by another padlocked gate. I’m told they are talking to the
brothelers who came round regularly to sweet-talk them into returning. Whispered words to
entice them back.
A policeman taps my shoulder. It’s time to leave.
THE CHILDREN OF PROSTITUTES CANNOT ESCAPE.
Night has fallen and the back streets of Bombay are now full of girls. I peer through a narrow
space between the buildings and discover that in fact it’s an alley, an active corridor leading
deeper into the quicksand. A furtive glance reveals more girls, more verandahs, bright saris.
Somewhere from the midst of the labyrinth, a baby cries, an old man sits staring into the
distance. Life goes on.
"Have you seen Asha?" Devaraj asks a girl in purple trousers. The answer is negative. No one
knows where she is. Finally, Devaraj spots her impish young brother roaming the street way past
his bedtime. Asha, we’re told, has gone to sleep at a nearby school where floor space is provided for a few destitute children.
Devaraj is pleased that she has taken his advice and gone to the
temporary shelter voluntarily. "She’s safe for a few more hours. I don’t like her being in this area
at night. It’s just not safe. Anything can happen."
Devaraj has developed a close relationship with Asha, her sister and brother, and many other
abandoned children of prostitutes. Remarkably, several of the kids have developed a strong
personal faith, consistently attend prayer and Bible studies, and frequently take part in a monthly
church service that is held near 14th Street.
Many of the prostitutes wander in to the meeting and for that hour business in the red light
district stops. For a few minutes, the girls can forget the life they live and lose themselves in
songs of praise and prayers of hope.
Asha’s father has been seen talking with one of the brothel owners and there are rumours that a
deal has been negotiated. Everyone knows that he could earn a fortune by selling his beautiful
young daughter to the brothel.
Asha knows the risks and is determined that she won’t be sold into slavery. She speaks with a
quiet confidence. "I don’t want to stay here. I want to leave. I feel dirty here. I’ll never forget this
street but all the memories are bad. I don’t like the way the men look at me. Some men want me
to join them. They say they’ll look after me and my family. I sense the danger. Every day it’s
getting harder for me to live here. I know I can’t fight them forever. It’s a question of time. I
want to leave here but I have nowhere to go. No one wants me except the brothelers."
We met six other girls who are also at risk.
Two sisters, aged 13 and 14, are looked after by a
brotheler. But Devaraj suspects the motives behind her kindness. "Perhaps she thinks these girls
will become dependent on her and she’s waiting for the right moment to introduce the sisters into
the business," he tells me.
The daughters of prostitutes have all followed their mothers into the sex business in Bombay.
Rarely has anyone ever escaped.
But Asha wants to turn her back on the past and leave her street of shame. She wants to wave
goodbye forever to 14th Street.
Devaraj and I discuss plans to buy a house outside the city where orphaned and abandoned
children of prostitutes could find sanctuary. It seems an insignificant gesture given the scale of
the problem but if we can’t rescue Asha, it’s clear she will be condemned to a life sentence of
sexual slavery. Who will rescue ASHA. Can her life
will change forever. It’s a question of time.