By Christine Mackay, Crooked Trails Co-founder & Executive Director
The journey to Mumbai was deep, intense, confusing and enlightening all at once, like India itself; a never-ending series of contradictions, where beauty brushes against deformity, where architecture is a mix of the modern and the ancient, a place of both freedom and cages, hope and despair, kindness and malice, all in equal measures.
Our humanitarian trip coincided with Ganesh Chaturthi, the weeklong Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Ganesha, the God of prosperity and good luck. Idols of the elephant headed God, some as tall as 20 feet, adorned in bling and garlands of marigolds were set on stages throughout the city with signs announcing ‘devotees are welcome’. On the prime number days of the 11-day festival, groups of families and communities carried their Ganeshas to the ocean to immerse them in the water. The gaiety of the celebration permeated every day, in stark contrast to the issue we had come to India to immerse ourselves in–human trafficking. The paradoxes made for an exhausting experience.
My group consisted of six American women in varying ages from 35 – 68 and with professional backgrounds as diverse as
The organizations we met with in Mumbai employ different approaches to combatting human trafficking. The Christian based International Justice Mission (IJM), works in partnership with other organizations to conduct rescues with a focus on justice, assisting those who have been trafficked with the legal resources needed to put perpetrators behind bars. On our visit with IJM, the staff explained how profits fuel the lucrative business of sex trafficking, earning a staggering 71% profit on investment-a girl. We also met with The Rescue Foundation, which conducts raids in the brothels, rescuing girls and bringing them to shelters, providing care, and rehabilitation. At Kranti, we met founder Robin Chaurasiya, an energetic, intelligent American-born Indian, working with girls that have been born into brothels.
The main center for the Rescue Foundation (RF) is a seven-story cement building. Here, rescued girls find shelter, a place to heal, learn skills, and get the support they need to move on with their lives. Co-founded by Triveni Acharya, a composed and compassionate woman, the shelter is a quiet haven for those she rescues. After our visit, we took the whole staff out to lunch, which is when we learned how many young men were on the team. Known as ‘Investigators’, their job is to act as spies, going into the brothels and posing as ‘johns’ to gain the girl’s trust and ready them for rescue. The job is dangerous, requiring incredible strength of character. I should not have been surprised to learn that many investigators and their rescues fall in love and marry, a small bright light in a sea of darkness.
I realized that the Rescue Foundation has few visitors and even fewer who invite them out to lunch. I could sense the entire staff felt appreciated and acknowledged. Their work is hard, never ending and emotionally painful. Working within a charity budget, most are under-paid. To have foreigners show up, meant more than a donation, it meant people on the other side of the planet acknowledged each of them and their sacrifice.
That evening the RF staff, escorted by local police, took us into Kamathipura, once reputed to be the largest red light district in the world. The first door we entered, was covered by a dirty curtain, which our police escorts flung aside and strode by with shocking familiarity. They showed us around and brought us upstairs. Nothing could have prepared me for the claustrophobic sensation of entrapment. The stairway was like a ladder, the upstairs ceiling was low, the hallway narrow, the rooms barely big enough for a small bed, and the heat and humidity was stifling. No windows existed. As Diane, a member of our group put it, “It felt like walking into a suitcase of depravity”.
I know that young girls are tricked, sold and trafficked into the sex trade, and are often held in cages deep inside brothels like these. Girls the same age as my 14-year old daughter back home. The girls in this brothel were busily putting on makeup and getting ready for the night. I stuck my head in one room and asked how they were. Their drugged eyes flashed a vacant resignation to the job, and they smiled coyly. It was surreal, sad and confusing.
As we walked through the area, ‘johns’ ran from brothels, and madams shut curtains in a furious flash of anger or fear. During the entire sortie, I felt out of place and conspicuous. There is no blending in here if you are a westerner. The madams, traffickers and their henchmen take their jobs very seriously and do not welcome any threats to their income. For our escorts, this was all part of the job.
We passed one woman resting on a cot on the street, surrounded by dogs she had rescued. She was a former madam the police had arrested. Jail time had changed her. Now free, she helped stray dogs in the very place she had once run a brothel. It seemed strange that she would stay, but Kamathipura is more than a red-light district. For many, it is home. Not all the girls here are slaves either; some choose prostitution to provide for their families in the only way they can. The night before our visit to this brothel, my group had spent an inspirational evening with the daughters of some of these sex workers who also felt this place was home. They have fond memories of tea sellers, favorite food stalls and playing with friends.
On our second day with the Rescue Foundation, they took us three hours north of Mumbai to their shelter home. It was a large beautiful campus, surrounded in barbed wire fencing. Triveni told us that the wire had two purposes; to keep traffickers out who wanted their ‘investments’ back, and to keep girls in, some of whom suffered from serious emotional damage and others who might experience pressure from family to go back to ‘work’. It was difficult to see the 70+ girls, knowing what they had gone through. Gail, one of the women in our group, noted that “There was an energy of safety at this campus” but recognized that “this trust only comes in stages as a child who has been brutally treated begins the unwinding of a terrified mind.”
Some of the young women were smiling and acting like teenage girls anywhere in the world, messing around with nail polish, dressing up in their homemade gowns and listening to their favorite music. Others bore the signs of physical and mental torture more openly. One was rocking herself alone against a wall, and many showed burn and cut marks on their arms and chest, the result of their disobedience. A moment of levity occurred when a few of the girls applied henna to our hands. This sweet interaction left its indelible imprint on us long after the henna disappeared.
We walked up seven flights of stairs in a modern cement building to meet the girls of Kranti, an organization that firmly believes that girls born into brothels are wholly underestimated. Robin, the founder, has taken her girls to Europe, the US and Dubai to learn and share their stories through dance presentations. Two of her girls are currently studying in the U.S. Robin encourages her girls to dream big, and that feeling of empowerment was palpable the moment the door opened to their shared space in central Mumbai. The girls are fun, lively, creative and carry themselves with confidence. Sandhya, an outspoken stunningly beautiful Kranti girl, shared that she was “Inspired to be a lifelong learner after realizing that we older women, had traveled across the planet to learn about this issue from her.” The girls were open and engaging, taking our hands, dancing with us, and playing games. “Spending time with the girls of Kranti was the best part of the trip” Diane told me. “It reminded me of the magic of resilience, the strength that women build from each other, and the power of the human spirit”.
On their ‘Field Trip Friday” the girls acted as tour guides showing up at our hotel and escorting us to a temple, a mosque and then to a movie called Love Sonia. Made by director Tabrez Toorani, who directed Slum Dog Millionaire, the movie is based on the true story of a village girl trafficked into the brothels of Mumbai, and then shipped off in a cargo container, first to Hong Kong to be used as a sex slave, and finally onto America before being rescued. The weight of the movie did not sit on the girls’ shoulders the way it did for our group, who were deeply disturbed. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the subject, and that somehow these young women were wise beyond their years. I wondered if anything could hold them down. They all seemed to be shouting: “Look at me! I can do anything”. One thing they could not do was pay the rent. The day our donation arrived, their landlord had threatened eviction. Mumbai rent is not cheap and at $1000 a month, it is a struggle to make ends meet for Robin and her girls. Our gift gave them three more months’ rent; but beyond that, who knows. I kept thinking if folks back home could meet these girls, they would do anything to support them.
The last day in Mumbai, the Blasey Ford testimony was showing on CNN. It was oddly familiar. Here was yet another woman asking to be seen and heard. Two of our team-Gail and Elaine were glued to the broad cast. “In any given moment my heart cracks wide open for women and children struggling on every level in a world ruled by greed and power.” said Gail.
In Agra, we stopped at a restaurant called Sheroes, which is founded, run by and benefitting women of acid attacks. This practice of tossing acid into the faces of women as a form of punishment is on the rise, despite restrictions on the sale of acid. Between 250-300 women suffer this fate each year in India. Until recently, those that survived lived a life hidden from view. Now, they too are saying “See us”. The women that greeted and served us were not embarrassed about how they looked. They were proud to gain control over their lives again. Looking at their heavily scarred faces was challenging. Who in God’s name could do this to another human being?
At the end of our trip, I realized that we had ‘seen’ the issue of human trafficking and its affects, and in doing so acknowledged the lives of those who are rarely noticed. No one wants to be unseen, no matter their tragedy, and therein lies the problem of brushing the actions of perpetrators under the rug. Victims need to be heard, believed, and respected. To truly ‘be seen’, is what we all need. Yet, in every country, women are silenced- by societal expectations, spousal control, a traffickers’ torture or the indifference of male privilege. The #MeToo movement is spreading across the planet. From the brothels of India to villages in Africa, and the highest levels of government in the U.S, women are crying out, “We are here, see us.”
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