* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
‘You are beautiful as you are and, always remember, a healthy body and a healthy mind make a beautiful person,’ is what my mother had told me when I complained that I wasn’t as beautiful as her. I was ten years old then. And I am soon going to be 39 years old. Yet till today, I have not forgotten her words. Her words and her love are still at the core of who I am today and how I perceive myself and others. But this piece is neither about her nor about me. Although I can go on about how my mother, without a university education or having ever read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, has always stood by me as I made one unconventional choice after another in life, defying patriarchy at many levels.
This piece is about all those women I have met in the last three years who are struggling as mothers, caught in the trap of prostitution.
It was in one of the brothels of GB Road in New Delhi in December 2016 that I met Reema (name changed) who had eloped with her lover as a school going teenager from Nagaon in Assam to Pune in Maharashtra. The most trusted lover did not think twice before selling her off to a man who took her to Sonagachi in Kolkata and sold her to a brothel there. Reema stayed there for a while before her brothel owner sold her off to someone who brought her to GB Road.
When I met Reema, her little daughter had just come back from school. The little one, about six years old, was amazed to hear her mother speak in a language she had never heard before. And it was because of Assamese that both of us could have this conversation that day under the nose of the clueless eagle-eyed Nayika. All the brothels in GB Road have a caretaker, referred to as Nayika, who is usually above 40 years of age and without clients since she is past ‘demand’.
‘Can’t you get out of here?’ I asked Reema. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I have nowhere to go. Who will accept me and my child? I can’t go back to my family in Nagaon. All these years I have been away and I have a child too. There would be too many questions to answer and I don’t want to bother my family with the burden of these questions.’
I looked at her daughter who was growing up in the small room of the brothel with her. Could she smell the fear, anxiety and hopelessness that her mother lived with, I wondered, in that otherwise closed space without air, sunlight or ventilation stinking of urine, food, sweat and what not.
Roshni (name changed) from the Perna community in Najafgarh, Delhi was put into prostitution by her in-laws right after she gave birth to her first child at the age of seventeen. In this denotified tribe (DNT) community, the daughter-in-law is prostituted after she gives birth to the first child. Roshni told me that nobody ever informs any child what is to be done, how it is to be done. Children learn by seeing things around them. No wonder they never grow up to raise questions like why are the women often beaten by their husbands; why are the girls put into prostitution and never the boys; why their mothers, who are out all night entertaining customers at parks and by the highway, have to prepare meals for the family when she comes back early in the morning.
My interactions with leading anti sex trafficking activists Ruchira Gupta, Malini Bhattacharya, Tinku Khanna, Catharine MacKinnon, Rachel Moran, Gregoire Thery, Shanie Roy and others have revealed that often women get trapped into prostitution because of the vulnerabilities arising out of the intersecting, intertwining inequalities of gender, caste, class, age, race, geography, etc. that they live with. Traffickers take advantage of these vulnerabilities. Patterns across the world reveal that it is invariably the poor, low caste, low class, teenager who gets trafficked. And it is these vulnerabilities that also close all options of exit for them.
Coming back to all the Reemas and Roshnis that I have met, what struck me is the dream that they have for their daughters. ‘I want my daughter to get out of here. I want her to study, live in a nice place and earn with dignity when she grows up,’ they have told me. Organisations like Apne Aap Women Worldwide, STOP etc. have been working for many years now to make these dreams come true. But there are too many brothels and too many girls and women trapped in these brothels. More needs to be done.
We need to facilitate a world where we have empowered mothers who can raise empowered daughters who can prevent their own trafficking as well as of others.
This piece was published by The Assam Tribune on 13 May 2018.