Tale of Mumbai's sex workers: Rescued and then 'abandoned'

For those rescued from ‘the world’s oldest profession’, there’s little in the name of rehabilitation. This Mumbai story holds the mirror to India


Geetanjali Minhas | September 15, 2014

 “Archaic rehabilitation measures” provided at shelters for rescued women – like making candles and ‘agarbatti’(incense sticks), or refilling phenyl bottles, filling chalk fodder in cask to dry out, etc – offer no long-term sustainability in the market.
“Archaic rehabilitation measures” provided at shelters for rescued women – like making candles and ‘agarbatti’(incense sticks), or refilling phenyl bottles, filling chalk fodder in cask to dry out, etc – offer no long-term sustainability in the market.

If statistics tell a story, it is a grim one.

  • In 2007, the ministry of women and child development (WCD) said there are over 3 million women sex workers in India, with over a third entering the trade before they turn 18.
  • According to estimates, around 1.5 lakh girls in Mumbai alone are victims of trafficking – mostly from other states but many from Nepal and Bangladesh, among other countries, as well.
  • Maharashtra recorded the highest number of child trafficking cases in the country between 2007 and 2010, followed by West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, then minister of state for home Jitendra Singh informed the Rajya Sabha in March 2012.
  • According to national crime record bureau (NCRB) data, a total of 2,12,318 child trafficking cases were registered across the country in those years.
  • According to a presentation on human trafficking made by Vandana Krishna, principal secretary, Maharashtra’s WCD department, Mumbai has the highest sex access points, with brothels in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai located mainly in “25 geographical areas”.
  • It also identified 103 ‘pick-up points’ near rail and road networks.
  • In contrast, there are only two women’s shelters in Mumbai’s suburbs, another two for destitute women  and as many protective homes, where bar girls are sent after court  orders. There are in all two such centres in Mumbai city.

In Greater Mumbai, a megapolis of over 1.8 crore people and with more person per square metre than anywhere else in India, these 25 “geographical areas” trap hundreds of women and girls each year. That is where Madhavi and Smitha ended up not so long ago – while the former, though not strictly operating in a brothel, got into sex trade to feed her infant son after her husband left her, the latter was packed off to Kamathipura by an agent.
A resident of Andheri, a Mumbai suburb where the affluent and the unfortunate live in close proximity, Madhavi had married when she was barely 18. Her family cut off ties with her, and Madhavi’s cup of woes had just started filling. Soon, her husband dumped her and left for his village in Uttar Pradesh. Madhavi took a train with her children but got on a wrong interconnecting train. She eventually returned. Unable to go back to her parents, Madhavi  was sent  with the railway police took to Kasturba  women’s shelter in Chembur, where she got a job as a social worker.

She made some friends there but says she had to leave over a petty issue. Her daughter died after a brief illness when she was there.

With “no money and debts to repay”, Madhavi took the job of a part-time household help at a home in Santacruz suburb. Madhavi worked there for two months when she heard from another woman about sex services that apparently helped the latter make more money. “I had no money and had to take care of my children.  So I decided to go and meet this lady in Santacruz, who ran a brothel in her house. Every time I slept with a man, I earned between '1,500 and '3,000. I saved a decent '60,000-Rs 70,000 of it,” she says.

She quit after a few months and went back to being a part-time maid for a monthly salary of '3,000. But just over a year ago, she fell prey again, and got caught in a police raid.

A year in detention at a woman’s shelter, the 23-year-old is now desperate for freedom – to be back with her son, who is looked after by her sister, and to pursue a course in nursing, for which she had undergone vocational training at the shelter.

Smitha, on the other hand, did not have to make any choices, for she had none to make. Separated from her mother at her village in Tamil Nadu at nine, she was left to work at a woman’s home in Chennai by a relative since the family was extremely poor. Beaten at the house regularly, she fled and was ‘helped’ by a stranger – “a woman”, she emphasises bitterly – who took Smitha to Grant Road, where Mumbai’s red light area is located, and left her with eunuchs. “They put make-up on my face, left me with a man who beat me and raped me when I cried and begged him to let me go. Every day, customers hit me, bruised me with their nails, bit me, burnt me with cigarette stubs. And they all raped me.”

Eventually rescued by social workers from a city NGO with the police’s help, Smitha found protection at a children’s shelter in Deonar and, subsequently St  Catherine’s home at Andheri. Turning 18, she checked out of the home and went to her village. Her mother, she learnt, had died of TB.

Now 27, Smitha is a social worker and helps rescue other girls trapped in flesh trade.

Abysmal rehabilitation
While prostitution is often called the world’s oldest profession, in India it is not one which a sex worker can leave with ease and, more importantly, be rehabilitated.

Though both Madhavi and Smitha have left the profession, their journeys since have also been just as starkly different ever since: the former still in detention and the senior woman actively fighting to ensure others do not meet her fate.

According to Virochand Rawate, a member of the child welfare committee (CWC), Mumbai Suburban, most women – as also underaged girls – rescued go back to sex trade and are often re-rescued. He says a measly 5 percent sex workers are rehabilitated.

Pravin Patkar of the NGO Prerana says “archaic rehabilitation measures” provided at shelters for rescued women – like making candles and ‘agarbatti’ (incense sticks), or refilling phenyl bottles, filling chalk fodder in cask to dry out, etc – offer no long-term sustainability in the market. “The profit margins for low-income products being very low, he says such measures  offer no rehabilitation,” he says.

Patkar’s NGO works on rehabilitation of sex workers through education and training, as well as emotional and physical recovery for women and rescue of minor girls.

Advocate Manisha Tulpule, a former advisor to the statutory committee on the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and member of CWC’s Raigarh district chapter, has been handling cases of sexual violence against women. She says: “Sex trafficking is an organised crime which has the support of international mafia and politicians. Very often children of sex workers are kept in anganwadis (child shelters provided for by the government). When the girls are brought to rehabilitation centres after police raids, many have already been  brainwashed by traffickers not to give statements against them to the police. So the rescued girls often state that they are working on their own volition, and that they want to go back to the same profession.

“Their rehabilitation becomes difficult in such situations.”

She says though the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 is, in itself, a “very good” law, there are problems in its implementation because of the popular mindset that “such women” cannot be rehabilitated. “The attitude and approach of functionaries (at CWC) and those from the women and child development (department) leaves a lot to be desired. They (officials) have not been trained adequately,” Tulpule says. “The police must have faith in raids they conduct. Corruption is deep-rooted, traffickers manage raids, the staff  at courts, WCD (officials) and shelter homes.

“Very often fake guardians are created to take custody of the girls.”

Lackadaisical administration
“There are no protection mechanisms available (for the rescued sex workers),” says Patkar of the NGO Prerana. “The only thing that keeps you out of it is the protection mechanism. But the moment that fails, the girls fall into this trap (of getting back into sex trade) – whether a minor or an adult woman.”

Patkar says his NGO has provided education and training to rescued sex workers in upmarket  fashion designing, nursing and hospitality, among others, in association with reputed institutions like NIFT and ITM Kharghar. This, he says, has enabled the rescued women and girls to work in boutiques, while many have started their own businesses.

Those with hospitality training have found work in food companies and eateries.

“Barring certain token activities there was never a rehabilitation programme by the government or civil society anywhere. Any success story is only because there are private organisations working. Many good organisations do not have licence because of lack of proper decisions by the state,” he says.

“From my experience, I can say that if professionally designed and monitored courses are delivered with compassion and partnership, these girls  and women never go back to being sex workers. After sustained physical and mental abuse and many ailments and communicable diseases, compounded by unhygienic conditions, they cannot be pushed into hard physical work.

Based on Prerana’s 1999 petition – filed after 99 rescued girls were lodged in police station since they had nowhere to stay – the Bombay high court sent the girls to shelter homes in Pune and Mumbai and also appointed a guidance and monitoring  committee to supervise their functioning. The NGO was chosen to coordinate upgrade and quality  of  infrastructure at the homes.

Patkar says this committee worked for the next three or four years. “After that, bureaucrats stopped calling meetings, making the committee defunct. The supervision stopped and after some years another scandal broke. So, what rehabilitation are we talking about?” he asks. “All rehabilitation taking place is only with the involvement of civil society but they are not given access to government homes – the government thinks it (the homes) is their personal property. In the name of protection to girls there is complete secrecy to stop outsiders from finding out (details and functioning of these homes).”

Former CWC member Indumati Jagtap, meanwhile, says that compared to CWCs, juvenile justice boards have done better work. Pointing out that children’s remand home schools do not have counselling centres and HIV and leprosy-affected children are denied shelters, she says, “There is only one residential officer for 700 children, committees are plagued with rampant malpractices, committee meetings are not held regularly and children are often indefinitely detained.”

A representative of an NGO working in area of human trafficking  who did not wish to be named says: “We are sitting on a volcano. If we do not act fast, we will destroy our own nation. We all know poverty is the main reason (for prostitution and human trafficking), and the government must deal with it at its roots. Prevention of this crime through economic growth of 1.25 billion people is an ongoing, long-term  and humungous  task. Looking at the nature of crime, prevention  by law enforcement is the key – and that can be done on an everyday basis.”

Favouring  vocational training  that enables dignified  income to the rescued women, CWC member Rawate  says NGOs are not doing enough in making available various government schemes to the people. As a result, government projects lapse and funds remain unutilised.

But advocate Tulpule says,  “One has to consider that NGOs have limitations and it is beyond their capacity to rehabilitate the large number of women rescued. Assisted rehabilitation is missing on the government’s part but they (government agencies) are still providing  effective rehabilitation along with some good NGOs. Rehabilitation is working well at places where you have good officers.”

Strongly in favour of transparency, Patkar says it is “completely unnecessary” for victims to be “hell-holed in such shelters”.

Nilima Mehta, a former chairperson of child rights committee, says, “Organisations must come together to give psychological and emotional counselling to rescued sex workers, along with viable financial  rehabilitation programmes.”

Susieben Shah, chairperson, Maharashtra Commission for Women, says, “The issue (rehabilitation) comes under the woman and child development department. We all have to get together, come out with a remedy and collectively fight it.”

This story first appeared in Magazine Vol 05 Issue 16(16-30 Sept 2014)



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