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We have been reading in the newspapers how demonetization has curbed trafficking in India. Maybe that's one side of the story. What anti-sex trafficking activists have been hearing from the prostituted women in brothels makes for the bigger story, which somehow the media in the country has missed. This is the story of how demonetization has increased the vulnerabilities and exploitation of not only the prostituted women but also women from communities living on the boundaries.
I accompanied Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal and her team to the brothels of GB Road in Delhi yesterday - brothels housed in buildings with no clue about owners; because in paper, the ownership of these buildings still remain with people who died decades ago.
Climbing up narrow staircases stained with paan stains which took one to an equally narrow and dim corridor, and through that to small rooms without ventilation, we visited about five brothels late in the afternoon. Most women were from Nepal and Andhra Pradesh. A few were from West Bengal and I found one from Assam. They have the same story to tell. Abandoned by families or sold by lovers and uncles and aunts. In two brothels we also found kids with their mothers.
"Because it is afternoon now, you see these women having their lunch and not too many people around," Delhi Commission for Women member Farheen Malick told me. "When we visited the brothels in the night some time ago, about 100-150 men and women came out of each brothel. Can you imagine that?"
It was indeed difficult to imagine that number of people in those brothels. But as we took a tour of the brothels, I realised that it might be true. A little room, in each brothel, where ordinarily about six people can sleep comfortably had about 12 to 15 women standing there with their faces covered as we entered. And this little room had several doors and secret passages that led to other little rooms. When we went, the women were having their lunch. The smell of food filled the stale air inside the brothels along with the stench of tobacco and body odour.
In all the five brothels we visited, the prostituted women revealed that they still have customers. That has not stopped even with demonetization. What has happened though is that they are being paid much less than before. One woman also admitted that some customers are still paying her in the old currency. And when I asked her what she did with it, she said she sent it home, to her village in Andhra Pradesh.
A few of them did admit that times are difficult with demonetization, but that they will have to stick it out as they don't know of any other way to earn money after all these years. Most of them came to GB Road in their teenaged years.
"It is the common experience of anti trafficking activists all over the world that at times of crisis - be it economic recession, natural disasters, or ethnic conflicts - trafficking increases," tells me anti sex-trafficking activist Tinku Khanna, who is the Director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide. "We have to remember that trafficking is not about a single entry and exit point; it is a chain. Immediate payment of money is not a concern for the trafficker, who knows that the money will be recovered sooner or later," she adds.
Mohammad Kalam, Apne Aap activist from Bihar, tells me, "Women need to pay brothel owners and pimps for their stay and food. So they have to earn money. They have to entertain clients. But what is happening these days is that the customers are paying less, even fifty rupees at times!" This highlights how demonetization has actually increased the disadvantages of the prostituted women manifold than that of the customers, brothel owners or the pimps.
Kalam also says that women and girls from the non-red light areas, most of whom are from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the denotified tribes, and engage in daily wage labour now find themselves without work. Also, their husbands who are working out of town are now not able to send cash home. Then there are instances of delayed payments, and payments in cheque while most of them don't have bank accounts. Under these circumstances, the women are left with options like negotiating with the thekedars and exposing themselves to exploitation at their hands.
What is required now perhaps is a shift in the demonetization and trafficking discourse. The focus has to shift to the plight of the trafficked and prostituted women, and to the hightened vulnerabilities of women that might result in more trafficking.
Yesterday, at the brothels in GB Road, I found the women there willing to talk - talk not so much perhaps, but talk, yes. We sat in rooms with low ceilings, with boxes jutting out of those ceilings and ladders by the wall to climb up to these boxes with beds inside. I talked to them even as a few women used the little rooms where they sleep and entertain customers to bathe, wash clothes, and cook food. These brothels are boxes inside boxes.
And in these boxes the women have been trapped into living in inhuman conditions. If demonetization has curbed prostitution and trafficking, why are these women still here? Instead of projecting a glossy image about trafficking reducing in the country because of demonetization, shouldn't we ask questions like is it so difficult for people in organised crime to get money in the new currency? Why and how are prostituted women still finding customers and receiving much less money than before? How have vulnerabilities increased for women and girls from certain caste communities and what consequences might that lead to? Let's look at the human side of the picture rather than statistics.
(This is an edited version of the same article that was first posted at this site on 29 December 2016)