September 29th, 2011
10:29 AM ET

Researching the cruel world of sex trafficking in South Asia

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.


“Which region?”


“How long have you been here?”

She shrugged.

“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.

More from Siddharth Kara on The CNN Freedom Project

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Nabin

    Thank you Mr. Siddharth Kara,
    Still in India girl are using as a animal. In Nepal there is more poor people with lack of education. Currently growing daily life expenses in Nepal young people they have more desire and became a rich man they forgot their ethic and small human rules. Indian government must have to set up good mechanism to stop those prosecution house owner. They are buying a young lady from Nepal as an animal and forcing them for do prosecution .
    There is big human trafficking group in Nepal.
    Mrs. Anuradha trying to do good job regarding this issue she escape more Nepalese girl from India and she still compelling to Indian Government those were not enough supporting to escape those trap women.
    Hartley Thank you for bring out real situation of South Asia.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Reply
    • Anakaraya

      this is EVERYWHERE in the world. In the U.S., Asia, South American, Caribean, Africa, Middle East, Europe etc. The only problem is that in most places it is accepted. Also, the police are a HUGE part of it. They go with those girls and are payed off by the pimps. It is very disgusting.

      October 11, 2011 at 8:19 am | Reply
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        July 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
      • Horacio

        Hi Ralph, I am so delighted the wild goose has aerrvid home. This is God's Mighty Hand spreading the message to all these homes and churches by the passion of women. No better way! Who could have guessed. Thank God for calmness and health. You look wonderful. (Still eating Avacado?I want to buy you one each time I shop.Ha! ) Lots of love Nancy Mom.

        July 3, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  2. k

    There is no god...this world is ours and ours alone to make a heaven or hell of.

    October 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Reply
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      October 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  3. mohammed a khan

    this day slavery arond the world more is women than men thair more than 100million and more abuse
    in arond the glob u.s.a canada east europe m east asia thailand philippine this cancer our world must takout
    that responsbalty of head of state to clean thair countrey hang thos responsbal thos bring our sister in markit
    for sale sax is shame cnn offer is just drop in bucket this is our dark said wher is jurnlisem wher un
    this felt every one us in to blam this our world and susiety is this women we born from tham if thay not her
    we r not her and this world not her today

    October 3, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Reply
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      April 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  4. Jess

    I don't know how I can help them for now. I don't even know if I could help them for now. But I want to help them. Can somebody please help them while I can't?

    October 5, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
    • Layne

      If you would like to help, NEVER buy music that praises pimps. Somehow we've turned these inhuman turds into role models. Change that, and just maybe we've made a beginning.

      October 5, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  5. todd saed

    a great hero , this man, one of the most barbaric things you will ever read, maybe the gurus, yogis, and teachers can revive the native Hinduism for long term prevention, how much of a cut do the authorities get, or why don't they stop it, makes you want to shut down as a human, but Kara dd better than that , an example to follow, one at a time,

    October 8, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  6. Davis Bradley

    Difficult. I know many Indian people in North America and Europe and they seem to be such good people yet when you talk to them about the hell that exists in their country they simply don't care. How can India become a world-class nation and still live in the dark ages? They are such proud and talented people yet how can they commit such horrifying acts of moral depravity? Simply bizarre.

    October 11, 2011 at 8:17 am | Reply
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  8. Cledson Correa

    As a man I feel ashamed to read reports about women trafficking and all the abuses they are forced to endure. As a father I despaire at the fact that I have kids and that they are bound to live in the very same planet other kids are suffering that way. I have already started doing something in my own network of friends, hoping that they will do the same until this can become a good wave. What am I doing? I am talking about this situation and trying to persuade other men to stand against it and voice their disagreement so that we can reach others out of practicing this horrible act. Making and implementing new laws is important but a radical mindset change needs to take place before we see real change happening. The ones who need to change are all those who are born male into this world.

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