This is not going to be a pleasant read—It's going to be disturbing and R-rated. Now's your chance to bail.
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What Is Kamathipura?
Mumbai's Kamathipura is the oldest red-light district on the Indian subcontinent, and is the 2nd largest on the entire continent of Asia. The 1st largest is Calcutta, which is something that I didn’t realize when I was actually there. If I had I probably would have paid it a visit, like I’m about to do in Mumbai.
I have spent more than a year living in Southeast Asia, which is a region infamous for its sex tourism. In spite of this, aside from the occasional unsettling exchange with a "sexpat," I didn’t have much experience with these sorts of things beyond the stories I heard from older people who had spent time in Thailand during the 1980s and 1990s. Those stories were scarring to even hear. My own experience was limited to the time that I visited the red-light district in Amsterdam a few years ago. Even that was a lot more than I bargained for, but Mumbai was going to be a lot more intense. I was nervous, but I wanted to see it.
In 1992, the Indian government estimated that there were approximately 50,000 sex workers in Kamathipura. Thanks to the rise of AIDS, the government finally cracked down on this industry, and the number has since fallen to about 2,000 workers. I have my doubts about the accuracy of these estimates; it’s hard for even the U.S. to measure these sketchy parts of the informal economy, let alone India. The Indian government is corrupt and inefficient. In any case, it is pretty well understood that Kamathipura today, in 2015, is a shadow of what it used to be. Don't let that fool you though. Despite this dramatic decrease, Kamathipura maintains its infamy all the same, and for good reason.
I think it's safe to say that none of the women who are sex workers in Kamathipura are there by choice. Indeed, they are treated like products, and most often victims of human trafficking. Start to finish, there are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 people involved in the trafficking of 1 girl. So each girl represents a significant investment of time and money.
Sunset was fast approaching, and while I would have preferred to see Kamathipura at night, during its main "business hours," I also wanted to be sure that I had a few pictures to share with y'all. A camera as big as mine in the hands of a foreigner like me would be an unwelcome combination in Kamathipura at night. Human traffickers don't tend to like having their pictures taken (I would imagine), so I made my visit during daylight hours. Here's a few pictures of Kamathipura at night that other people took:
It was late afternoon. I hailed a cab, and recited the name of the neighborhood: "Kamathipura." I cringed, waiting for the driver’s reaction. Would he think that I was a sex tourist? Would he care? Maybe he wouldn't want to drive there. He had no reaction through. He robotically dropped me off exactly where I had asked.
I had barely gotten out the door of the cab when I was approached by a few different men in sunglasses and baseball caps. These men were pimps. In sketchy, hushed voices they told me all the different nationalities of girls that they employed. “I have lots of Nepali girls” is something I heard over and over again. “No… No… No…” I said flatly to each solicitation. One man insisted on giving me his card though. I looked at the card, and thanked him as I began to put it into my wallet. But then, apparently having a change of heart, he grabbed it back from me. This was a smart move on his part. I blog.
I watched some of the pimps retreat back into their holes. Kamathipura is sort of a slum area, but these days it is surrounded by expensive real estate, so it feels a bit out of place. Based on the sorts of places I saw the pimps walk back into, I was able to tell which buildings were brothels and which were not. The brothels all seemed to have the characteristic of being completely opaque at street level. I could see through the windows of other buildings, as is normal in a big city, but some buildings were sealed shut like prisons. These structures seemed to be particularly run down as well, and to look up above street level, every window had some sort of bedding hanging out of it, as if to air it out from whatever had just occurred. It didn't take much critical thinking to surmise which buildings were which, and which people were who.
As I walked, I would often pick up on hostile vibes from the pimps and madams standing in front of the brothels. I had intended to take pictures of everything that I could, including people like these, but once I was there I chickened out. I took a few pictures when I didn't feel like I was being watched too heavily. It was a very uncomfortable place to be. To walk through the streets, it wasn’t hard to tell that something was up. The whole area just had this intangible fear about it. Below are some pictures...
As I walked farther, I began to realize that this was not just a place of business; this was a neighborhood too. Food was being sold in the street much the same as anywhere else, and on the less sinister feeling streets, children played. One kid ran up to me, and gestured for me to follow him. I followed him down the street a ways, and he asked me to take a group picture of him and his “crew.” I took a few goofy photos of them, and then they crowded around me to watch their photo-shoot play out on my tiny screen. These little guys are growing up in Mumbai’s red light district, so some of them undoubtedly had heart breaking family situations, but here they are smiling and having fun. They were sweet kids.
I explored for a long while, but eventually I got in a cab and got the hell out. I could feel an army of anonymous eyes drilling holes in my back as I hailed that cab. After I left, the rest of Mumbai seemed a lot nicer in comparison. But there is still something that I want to circle back to: all the Nepali girls that supposedly work here. There is a story here, and my curiosity compelled me to track it down.
Before I get into this though, HUGE shout out to Kelsey, not only for breaking most of the following information down for me, but also for all that she is doing on the ground in Nepal to combat this right now. That takes guts. You go girl.
The Gorkha Earthquake
I'm sure you heard about the earthquake that happened this past April in Nepal (the Gorkha Earthquake). If you live under a rock, I'll throw you a bone and fill you in. With a magnitude of 8.1, this earthquake was responsible for killing upwards of 9,000 people and injuring more than 23,000 others, not to mention all but destroying large areas of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu. I actually had a few friends who were there when it happened, but they were okay, thankfully. This earthquake also caused roughly 5 billion USD in damage, which amounts to about 25% of the country's GDP. Yikes.
The thing is that Nepal wasn't a country that was doing very well in the first place. Landlocked between 2 of the biggest, most powerful, and most dysfunctional nations in the world is not a good place to be. India and China have all but total control of Nepal, which is considered to be one of the world's most impoverished countries. It essentially has no industry aside from tourism. Even in the capital, Kathmandu, there are next to no work opportunities. Once you get outside of the cities to the smaller villages, the people are in dire straights. The Himalayas aren't exactly ideal for agriculture either, so even producing food is a challenge. Not exactly prime real estate.
So -- back to the earthquake -- of course, in the wake of a tragedy like this, the rest of world came together and gave Nepal a substantial amount of aid money. But then, a few news cycles later, the world inevitably forgot and moved on. It happens. But Nepal is far from recovering, and many of the effects of this earthquake are still developing. While the good people of the world are trying to solve the problems that this earthquake created, there are other people who saw the earthquake as an opportunity, and they are seizing that opportunity.
Enter the human traffickers. Here's how it works, broken down into 10 steps for you...
[ Sex Trafficking Start To Finish ]
Step 1: Desperation In Nepal
So we've established that rural Nepal was in a desperate situation even before the earthquake. With no food or resources, families were to the point of selling their own children. The earthquake perpetuated and amplified that problem beyond anybody's worst nightmares.
Step 2: The Sales Pitch
The slimy fingers of human trafficking reach these villages in the form of "brokers" or "madams" who approach local families with "great opportunities" for their poor children. These "opportunities" usually take the form of openings in far away boarding schools, rich foreign men who are looking for wives, or the demand for unskilled labor in big cities. Whatever the story, the punchline is always the same. The broker/madam gives the family money, and the family gives them their child(ren) in return. From the perspective of the parents, it makes a lot of sense. What parent wouldn't want to give their children a better future? After all, it's not as if their children were even in school out in those villages. Little do they know what happens next for their beloved children. Brokers/madams will depart from each village will a gaggle of children that they now own. Once they finish their rounds of all the villages, it's time for them to get their human cargo out of Nepal.
Step 3: Smuggling Human Cargo
They travel south by bus. When they get to the border, there will be police checks by both the Indian and Nepali border controls. If they get through (which they usually do) it is either because they paid the border control to look the other way, or because the border control didn’t catch on to what was happening. Either way, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the border control here; it is either ignorance or incompetence on their part.
Step 4: Transportation → Destination
Once they get across the border, they are usually taken to either Mumbai, New Delhi, Calcutta, Dhaka, or Bangkok. The boys will be sold to sweat shops (human trafficking) to work dangerous jobs in terrible conditions. The girls, who are more the focus of this article, will be sold to brothels (sex trafficking). Once these children have been smuggled across the border into India, the traffickers are home free. Almost regulation-free, India is an easy place to get away with bad things.
Step 5: Slave Auction
When the traffickers get their cargo to their destination (Mumbai in our case), things get really bad. The broker/madam sells the children at auction to brothels in much the same way that African slaves were sold in our "American History" textbooks. This, however, is happening right now, whereas the institution of slavery in America has long since been abolished. Similar to these slave auctions we've all read about in history class, these little Nepali girls are evaluated on a certain set of physical criteria. Of course there are many different dimensions to physical beauty, but the most important thing in this arena is age. The younger the better, basically. Younger girls are more "pure" and "tighter," if you know what I mean. When I say "young" I mean like 7 years old. The prime age range for girls being sold to brothels is 7 to 19 years old. By the time a girls hits 20, they are thought to have lost these characteristics.
Interesting detail: The most "in demand" Nepali district to be from is called Sinderpulchowk. These girls are considered to be the most beautiful, and are often purchased by wealthy men from the Middle East. In these cases, the girls are then flown to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., or wherever.
Step 6: Financial Arrangements
After that, the girls are officially "employed," by which I mean that they are the property of the brothel. When they arrive at the brothel, they are told what price they were purchased for. This price is the value of their debt to the brothel. They are told that they will not be allowed to keep any of their earnings until the brothel is reimbursed for what they paid. However, once they have paid off their "debt," the rest of their earnings are likely to be retained by the brothel as "rent." Remember that these girls probably have no idea of where they even are. India? Bangladesh? Mars? They don't know. They are kids, and they are from tiny, isolated Himalayan villages.
Step 7: Breaking The Girls
What happens to them next depends on a number of factors, but the main plot points are basically fixed, regardless of the location. First, to ensure that they don't try to run away, the brothel will "break" the girls, much the same as horses are broken. This process surely varies depending on the location, but today we are focusing on Mumbai's Kamathipura. A photojournalist named Hazel Thompson spent 11 years investigating the brothels of Kamathipura, and in her book, Taken, she details abuses the girls are put through. They are locked in small cages for months -- sometimes years -- until their spirit is completely broken. They are pretty much only let out of these cages when there are "customers" there to rape them. The first few times that they have "customers" they are drugged to ensure that their rape is carried out smoothly, without protest. This will continue until the brothel's management is convinced that their newly acquired asset will not attempt to escape.
Step 8: Life On The Job
Once they have been "broken" they are let out of their cages, and they join the rest of the girls with a "full workload." In an average day these girls will be raped by as many as 30 different men. There is no chance for escape because, in Kamathipura at least, there are eyes everywhere. There are "watchers" sitting on top of buildings, phones ready, whose sole job is just to watch the streets like hawks in case any of them try to sneak away. Sometimes, if there are gangs in the area, the gangs assist the brothels by patrolling for and intercepting runaway girls. Other times the brothels go as far as to bribe the local government and police to help them keep their "product" secure. In these cases, if one of the girls turns up missing, the brothel will literally report it to the police so that they can be tracked down and recovered. If a girl is caught trying to escape, she will be brought back to the brothel and publicly punished to scare the rest of the girls in obedience. The punishments usually involve brutal beatings, and being deprived of food.
Step 9: End Of The Product Life-Cycle
Girls that are not chosen by enough clients will be punished (beaten, starved), much the same as girls who attempted to escape. This creates a lot of competition for clients within the brothel. As the girls get older, new, younger girls will be brought into the brothel to work alongside them. When clients enter the brothel, they will have their pick of girls. They are likely to choose the youngest girls available because they are "pure,""tight," and most likely disease-free. Thus, as girls get older, they will be chosen by fewer and fewer clients, and their monetary value to the brothel will diminish, that is if they haven't gotten pregnant yet. Usually 20 to 23 years old is the expiration date for these girls, and once their value is spent, the brothel will kick them out onto the street, thrown out with the garbage.
Step 10: Life After Slavery
There is a cold, hard world waiting outside the brothel for these girls. Once a girl has been discarded, she is literally homeless and penniless, living on the street. The "career" she has just "retired from" is heavily stigmatized, and a topic of intense shame, not only for her, but for her family. Families will often not take their daughters back, even though, in many cases, it was them that sold their daughters to brothels in the first place. There are nonprofits that work to provide rehabilitation, skills training, and psychological counseling for these girls, but the need for counseling itself (mental illness) is also heavily stigmatized. It is unlikely that these counselors will ever get these girls to fully open up about what they have gone through, if at all.
Analyzing + Reflecting On My Visit
And that brings us to my visit. Prior to my visit to Kamathipura, scholar that I am, I had done almost no research. Wandering through this neighborhood, most of this was way over my head. The area had a strongly insidious vibe to it though, more so than anywhere else I've been. Even though, in many parts of the neighborhood, there was nothing specific that was wrong, the whole place just seemed off. I didn't know exactly why at the time, but many of the scenes I saw here imprinted themselves on my brain, despite their apparent banality. It was only later, after I started doing my research and asking questions, that I started to piece together what I was seeing. What exactly did I see?
The most obvious thing was the pimps telling me about all the Nepali girls they had. Obviously there are also lots of Indian girls working here as well, but they told me about their Nepali girls because it is the most sought-after nationality in India. Many Indians consider them to be more beautiful than the local girls.
I also saw the watchers. I remember seeing men of the roofs and thinking that it was a bit odd. I remember being eyed in the streets in a way that was oddly distinct from the normal spectacle I create as a foreigner. I remember a sketchy-looking little guy with a mustache and a baseball cap that followed me right up until I got into my taxi. He watched me drive away too.
Going off of that, I was also aware that people were following me at times. I felt very surveilled, like people were keeping tabs on me as I went. Among the people staring at me were the madams. They seemed to be sizing me up as I passed by their doorways. I had hoped that they were just grumpy old women, but now I know better.
It all gives me the heebie-jeebies to think about. Remember the girls in those cages? They were just a few inches of concrete away from me. It's surreal that I came so close to something so horrible. When you read about things like this on your laptop, safe in your bubble, often it doesn't quite feel real. But I was actually there. It's real. Here are a few haunting pictures, taken by Mary Ellen Mark, that I tracked down from inside the brothels - I wish I hadn't eaten right before looking these up...
OK THAT'S ENOUGH OF THAT
Let's get to the positives.
I don't like to write about things like this if I can't offer you some way that you can get involved for the better. You can make a difference! There are NGOs that are working to stop all this from happening right this very second, and they need all the help they can get. The following are the NGOs that were recommended/vouched for by my lady on the inside. Take a look. Reach out. Donate. Volunteer. Take action.
Of the 3 NGOs I am listing, this is perhaps the most noteworthy because it was founded by a low-level humanitarian celebrity. Her name is Anuradha Koirala, and she is credited with rescuing upwards of 12,000 girls from brothels. Naturally, she has been the recipient of a laundry list of awards, most recently from CNN, who named her as one of the world's top-10 heroes. Maiti Nepal works to prevent girls from being taken by human traffickers, rescue them from brothels, and attempt to rehabilitate girls who have been rescued.
The WSCC is an advocacy group focused on empowering women in Nepal. They are not religious, nor are they associated with any political agenda. Their basic goal is to improve the socioeconomic situation of women in Nepal. This is a multi-dimensional problem, so human-trafficking is just one of many ways that they are fighting and advocating for women.
Between 2007 and 2014, WOSCC has rescued 174 women and children from traffickers and brothels, and has engaged thousands of others in preventative initiatives.
Of these 3 organizations, Chhori is the decidedly the smallest. It is a grassroots organization that works for gender equality and the empowerment of young girls in Nepal. They have already been successful in sending a few girls to school and they are continuing to grow. They also provide sexual education classes to hundreds of Kathmandu's teenagers.
If you want to learn more about what happens in Mumbai's Kamathipura, specifically, you should read Taken by Hazel Thompson (not to be confused with the Liam Neeson movie). Thompson is an awesome photojournalist who spent eleven years in Mumbai / Kamathipura to write this book. ELEVEN YEARS! That's a long freaking time.
Some of the things she did during that time to obtain information and help the girls there were somewhere in the grey area between brave and stupid (in a good way) but, thankfully, she lived to tell the tale. If you want to hear that tale, check out the links below.
That just leaves the 'track of the day,' if anybody even listens to these. I chose "Rape Me" by Nirvana, which I think is one of the most misunderstood songs of all time. Most people listen to it and just feel uncomfortable. Painfully blunt, and universally shocking, this aspect of the song is classic Cobain, defiant to the end. However, that doesn't mean that the song can be written off as meaningless; it's quite the opposite in this case. It was written as a strong statement in support of women and against any violence towards them. Kurt once said "It's like she's saying, 'Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You'll never kill me. I'll survive this...'" in an interview with Spin. It's still a shocking song, to be sure, but I think that was the point. Rape isn't G-rated. It's awful. Very few songs have been written about this subject because most songwriters don't want to deal with it. Likewise, most listeners don't want to hear about it. But that makes the shock value of this song all the more important. Can you really do this issue justice without being shocking? I don't think so. So without further ado...