Red-lighting India’s Brothels

Where to from here…

Saturday 14 March 2009, by Wendy Champagne

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Geeta Thapa falters when she talks about her future, “There are many
pursuing me… and… I haven’t been able to say ‘yes.’”

So why is an attractive, independent 22 year-old reluctant to commit
to marriage? Geeta believes if she reveals her “secret” no one will
love her, yet if she does not how will this diminutive young woman bear
the enormous weight of her past and move into a brighter future?

She was sixteen-and-a-half when the Rescue Foundation pulled her
out of Mumbai’s dangerous network of gated brothels. For three
years she had lived in a series of windowless single bedrooms. A
prisoner condemned to sex-work, when she was fi nally pulled out
from that hell all she could think about was revenge.

Geeta’s story offers a microcosm of the major dilemma facing the
victims of child traffi cking around the world: how do young girls who
have endured so much at such a young age, girls sold into sexual
slavery, successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate into society, into
families, into workplaces?

Social reintegration often feels like the forgotten end of the antitraffi
cking spectrum. To hunt down and charge traffi ckers and brothel
owners takes enormous time and resources, so when it comes to
preparing former victims for life after the streets many organizations
seem to run out of steam. To confuse matters further, there is not
a clearly defi ned model for successful reintegration— or even a
consensus on what success might mean.

Exacerbating the issue is the fact that traffi cked girls are at a great
risk of re-traffi cking and further exploitation. Most young victims
have little or no education and invariably come from broken or very poor households. The natural response of organizations in India, where girls
are provided for and protected by their
families until marriage, is to offer safety,
shelter, and basic needs to rescued girls:
the welfare model.

“There are two alternatives for rescued
girls,” according to Leena, the Rescue
Foundation’s in-house counselor, “work
or marriage, and many girls do not want
to work.”

Geeta’s Dilemma

For the last five years Geeta has vehemently
guarded her “secret”, focusing instead on
a personal crusade to bring her traffickers
to justice. She returned to Mumbai, the
scene of her worst nightmares, to work
at the Rescue Foundation and conduct
brothel raids in the hope that she would
encounter her former brothel owners in
the process. She was unsuccessful, yet
her desire to live in the wide world and
seek personal justice has brought her
face-to-face with another major life issue:
to marry or not to marry.

Overcrowded and under-funded, the
Rescue Foundation has chosen what they
believe is a culturally appropriate solution
for the mounting number of girls they
rescue from Mumbai’s streets: marriage.

When a girl’s legal case is finished its
run through the courts, the Foundation’s
director, Treveni Acharya, starts to vet
prospective husbands.

In India, marriage is viewed as an essential
part of the culture. Despite years of
westernized global economy and culture
swapping, 80 percent of all marriages
are still arranged. For most young female
trafficking victims there is little hope of ever
returning home as that means going back
to the place where the exploitation started.

This puts the responsibility on organizations
such as the Rescue Foundations to choose
a future path for their wards.

“These girls are my children,” says
Acharya, “they have been abandoned by
their families, so in my culture I am their
‘Mummy’. I want to make sure they are
well provided for and secure.”

Eighteen-year-old Aarti, a four-year
resident of the rescue home, has her own
perspective, “When I finish this year they
are not going to keep me here. But if I get
married only a husband who is like a God
would want to take care of me. But what is
my choice? Domestic work, go from here
to there and wash dishes…”

Given the limited choices for girls from the
brothels, there are a few compelling voices
starting to call for a more enlightened
approach, one that aims to provide tools
for the girls to heal, and empowers them
to build a future of their own making, to
acquire adult, independent living, and job
skills that can support them.

“For the victims of violence and abuse
living in NGO and state-run homes,
rehabilitation continues to follow a
stale routine: the usual counseling and
vocational training in tailoring, block
printing, and knitting. There are very few
innovations in counseling techniques or
finding new opportunities for the victims,”
says Sohini Chakrabooty, a Kolkata-based
sociologist and dance activist.

Chakrabooty belongs to a new wave
of social thinkers who believe that true
reintegration only works when children
are actively, physically involved in their
own healing. At Sanved, the NGO she
founded 10 years ago, she uses dance
and movement to transform young victims of sexual abuse from being “rehabilitative
victims to proactive advocates… Someone
who has made peace within her violated
soul and is now ready to voice her concerns
through physical movement,” she explains.

“Children traumatized from sexual
exploitation often have negative attitudes
towards their bodies and their lives, and
must deal with negative stigma on a daily
basis,” says Chakrabooty. “Children
who live on the railway platforms
and in slums face daily violence and
aggression. They have to fight through
daily activities in order to stay alive.

This type of life keeps the children from
loving their bodies and minds.”

Both Geeta and Aarti recently participated
in the making of a dance video— part of a
larger project called Red Light Bhangra—
to air on MTV-style stations in India and
around the world. The girls spent close to
two weeks training with Montreal-based
choreographer Nancy Leduc, who guided
them through a series of exercises designed
to help them “re-appropriate” their bodies
before working with them to choreograph a
dance sequence designed to bring an antitrafficking
message to the world.

Like Chakrabooty, Leduc strongly believes
that dance movement is a powerful tool
for rehabilitation and advocacy for young
victims. Ultimately the most potent solution
for young rescued girls may be a combination
of both approaches: to create a secure and
stable environment where they are given
the real tools to learn to love their bodies
and themselves, to find their unique voices,
and then decide for themselves where they
want their lives to lead.

After the dance experience, Aarti was
clear about what she wanted her future
to look like, “I want to dance or act, I want
to make some money and have a name as
well. I don’t want more than that.”

For Geeta, the road ahead is not as
obvious. She still agonizes over her
deepest secret. After her childhood
slavery in Mumbai’s Red Light area she
became a prisoner of a different sort. She
is currently living with HIV/Aids.

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