Mumbai: Flesh trade moves off streets, to homes and lodges
The first thing that comes to mind, when you think of prostitution or a prostitute, are dark, dingy and narrow paths leading to dimply lit, ill kept rooms with a sturdy-looking pimp waiting for you to pay him. An image that most of us have build in our minds to be the truth. But like everything else, prostitution has also managed to metamorphosize into something you'd never notice unless you were looking of it.
Today, prostitutes and pimps don't work on street corners and don't really look like the quintessential sex worker. They network through WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media sources. This sort of cloak-and-dagger is practiced even more when it comes to minors. In a report by the Times of India, the International Justice Mission (IJM) recently surveyed 43 unique locations as part of a study titled `Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Mumbai'. As a result they encountered 214 sex workers of whom 25 (11.7%) were minors. In comparison, only 5.5% of the 10,082 women encountered in public establishments were below 18. One such story is that of Abha. A young girl who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, and was dragged into prostitution at the age of 13, after her neighbour drugged and sold her to a customer. She then started selling her body to feed her drug habit. Unlike a brothel, these girls are not restrained, they are free to come and go, but the drugs and blackmail are two things that hold them back.
Anti-trafficking agencies first noticed the change from public to private in 2011. In a conversation with Times of India, IJM's Regional Director of North India Sanjay Macwan said, "Earlier, you could walk into Kamathipura and buy any girl no matter the age, but now, that's not the case. One needs to have a contact and build a relationship with that contact before procuring a minor for sex." In a covert operation, IJM's researchers tried to reach out to a contact but failed after trying up to five times. Macwan says that the first contact usually after much coaxing will simply provide the number of another pimp, who would then have to be approached a number of times before giving the number of another lead. The researcher would immediately stop all contact once the lead showed him a picture of a minor either in person or on WhatsApp.
This racket is a lot larger than we think and the actual size came to light when the Bombay High Court asked Mumbai police to perform investigations on 500 odd numbers that they had found through escort agency ads. These 500 numbers then lead to 16,000 people. During their investigation IJM researchers found an overlap in the girl providing services. Macwan explained, "We realized that many pimps have access to the same girl so traffickers are bringing them to a common pool." The study also found that the girls were paired to the areas they would best fit into. For instance a girl servicing an up-market area like Andheri or Versova would be more sophisticated and well-spoken than their peers working out of a lodge in Mira Road. These girls would, typically be more educated, spoke English and wore less makeup to attract less attention to themselves. More than often, neighbours and security guards wouldn't have a clue about the goings-on. This fact was highlighted when the police recently raided a posh private residence where a family was pimping out their 17-year-old daughter and her friend.
Most people interested in prostitutes find what they need through private networks or escort services that advertise in news papers or websites – making them hard to track. Apart from that, most people use different numbers for Whatsapp and another one as a phone number – ensuring that the initial point of contact is never the pimp himself. Even in case of a police crackdown the kingpin always manages to escape. These underground networks took root after the police started to crack down on pimps selling minors. Macwan said, "It's now well known in the sex industry that if you sell minors, you will definitely go to jail." This risk has made its mark on the price of minors. In a private establishment the price varies from 3,000 to 15,000, while a public establishment would charge anywhere between 250-2,000.
The good news here is that if one girl is rescued, it helps topple a number of establishments as they overlap. For instance Abha was rescued in 2015 by IJM and since she worked in multiple establishments, she has been a rich source of information for the police, who have been able to arrest 12 pimps since her arrest.