By Siddharth Kara, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Trafficking expert Siddharth Kara is a Harvard fellow and author of the award-winning book, "Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery." For more than 15 years, he has traveled around the world to research modern-day slavery, interviewing thousands of former and current slaves. Kara also advises the United Nations and governments on anti-slavery research and policy.
When I walked into a brothel in Mumbai for the first time 11 years ago to research sex trafficking in South Asia, I was exceedingly nervous and did not know what to expect. The brothel was on an alley off Falkland Road, a well-known red light area in Mumbai. A middle-aged gharwali (madam or house manager) named Bipasha sat in a chair near the front door, chewing betel nut. Posing as a customer, I told her I wanted a Nepalese girl. She took me to a back room and had several young girls line up in front of me, hands folded. Most had at least one visible bruise or scar.
After agreeing on a price of two hundred rupees, or about $4.44, for a teenager named Sita, I paid Bipasha and followed Sita up the stairs.
On the way up, I noticed the brothel was filled with hundreds of women of all ages. Laundry was hung to dry on the staircase rails. Children played amid the filth. One girl drew pictures of flowers with pink chalk on the floor; another girl tied pigtails into a younger girl’s hair. From behind closed doors, the sounds of grunting men seeped into the halls.
On the third floor, I arrived at Sita’s room near a makeshift altar of the god Ganesha. The room was small with a tiny cot. Sita’s clothes were folded on a shelf in the corner, next to a steel urn filled with water. Dead insects floated on the surface. Pin-ups of bikini girls adorned the walls.
Sita removed her slippers at the door and sat on her cot. I spoke to Sita in Hindi, which she understood.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“How long have you been here?”
“How many years do you have?”
I did not want to put Sita at any risk for speaking with me much longer, so I eventually left her 200 rupees and the name and address of a nearby shelter, then hurried back to the street.
* * *
Since that first encounter, I have researched numerous brothels, clubs and massage parlors across South Asia to document the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. While much has changed, much remains the same.
Last year when I researched the kothas (brothels) on G.B. Road in New Delhi, a young woman named Leela informed me that madams had recently been injecting the youngest girls with animal steroids. The steroids were meant to make the otherwise frail and bony children more enticing to Western tourists who would be arriving for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
On Falkland Road in Mumbai, street-level "cages" are still filled with trafficked women and children. Each 10-by-4 cage is crammed with bunks, and sometimes several men at once.
The brothels in nearby Kamathipura are also filled with women and minors from across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. A young woman named Mallaika told me, “Minors are beaten when they first arrive. The gharwali gives them opium so they will have sex. If they do not behave, the [boss] beats them until they go unconscious.” (Related: India's response to the problem)
In Sonagachi in Kolkata, the brothels are divided into three tiers based on quality and level of services. There are more trafficked girls from Nepal here than most any other city in India. In fact, one entire brothel is dedicated strictly to Nepalese girls.
In Tanbazar in Dhaka and the massage parlors and dance clubs of Kathmandu, young rural girls are broken down through coerced sex work for several months before many are trafficked to India. Traffickers take the girls to border areas and cross through forests, rivers, and chor batos (“thief roads”) with ease, before passing the girls to other traffickers who continue the journey to numerous Indian cities.
On arrival, these women and children are sold, then violently forced to be with 20 or more men per day, no matter how much pain they endure. If they try to escape, they are tortured or killed. Even if they make it home, they face stigma, rejection, and a complete lack of opportunity, which often leads to their being re-trafficked.
There are valiant efforts by several activists to intervene in the wanton trafficking and sexual exploitation of hundreds of thousands of women and children across South Asia, including those of last year’s CNN Heroes winner, Anuradha Koirala. Despite a few pockets of official intervention, the scale of the trafficking and the level of corruption remain astounding.
Much more needs to be done to expose and disrupt the dark inner workings of South Asia’s brothels and sex trafficking networks. The more knowledge and resources activists have, the sooner the brutalization of children such as Sita will end.
- The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of Siddharth Kara.