An estimated 2 million-plus women and girls are forced into prostitution in the red-light areas of India. Most are victims of human trafficking, sold to a pimp or madam, and then forced them to sell themselves to anyone willing to pay. Some were married as child brides and then sold by a husband; others were sent off by parents who couldn’t bear the cost of feeding another mouth. Many were lured from small villages with the false promise of a legitimate job in the city. Some of the women are not technically victims of human trafficking but came out of a desperate desire for survival. Poverty is the driver that keeps the engine of exploitation running.
Regardless of how or why they arrived, every one of the girls and women here have this in common: they are victims of inhumane exploitation. Day by day, each one sits outside one of the rooms on this lane until someone wants to purchase her. Buyers can do as they please to their rented property.
In a small red-light district in a large city in India, a local congregation has created a drop-in center they call Hope for Life. Reshma* is the woman who owns the room that houses the center. She came to the city as a victim of human trafficking. Her parents died when she was a teenager, and afterward she was forced into prostitution by a trusted family member. She tried to leave but eventually stopped fighting after she was brutally “broken in.” Then this life became her identity, and she became a gharwalli, a madam, herself. At 45, she has never married or had children.
When the congregation wanted to start a drop-in center, Reshma offered an upstairs room. Over time, she opened up to a counselor at Hope for Life about her feelings of hopelessness.
“I don’t have hope for life—no relationships, no love, no respect, no one who can stay with me,” she said. “I am all alone in this life. Now I am getting old. I have gained all things but lost all things. For a prostitute it is very difficult to leave in old age.”
When I ask Reshma why she opened her space for the congregation’s drop-in center, she says she wants to keep young girls from having to experience what she did. She shares how she has been able to help five children escape this area by putting them in a home for children whose parents cannot provide for them, known locally as a hostel.
“One girl is in grade 11,” she says. “Another has gotten married.” As she talks, her face lights up and her voice fills with pride.
“None are in this work,” she says, pointing toward the lane below.
During the afternoons and evenings, Hope for Life becomes a safe space for 25 children, ages 4 to 12. Without it, children would either be in the room while their mother is being exploited or left unattended on the neighborhood’s streets. The center provides a way to escape the horrors below for a period of time. Children get to experience the innocence of childhood through crafts, games, singing, and education. Many are learning to read and write for the first time. Here, they are also able to talk to trusted adults about their thoughts and feelings.
While no one wants the young girls here to have to experience the same fate as their mothers, the reality is that many will unless something breaks the cycle of intergenerational exploitation.
None of the women here want this life. Every one of them would rather earn money any other way. A core component of Hope for Life is vocational classes that offer women a chance at what they call “outside work.” They currently offer tailoring and beautician training. Women also come to the center for counseling and to attend workshops on topics including HIV/AIDS awareness, child care and parenting, self-protection, and nutrition.
“I came for the sewing,” says Anaya, a 35-year-old mother of two. She entered the red-light area when she was 10 or 11 but desperately wants a different life for her daughters, who are 15 and 12.
“If I can learn stitching properly, then I can—we can—leave,” she says. “I want my girls to get an education.”
*All of these names are pseudonyms. The names of the women in the red-light area have been changed to protect their privacy and dignity.
To read more about the Hope for Life center in India, check out the Summer 2018 issue of NCM Magazine.
To support the work of Hope for Life, click HERE.