Life in a red light district is unimaginably tough, incredibly tricky and equally difficult to get out of. But there are a few bravehearts who, after being enslaved on the lightless fringes of society for long sadistic years, worked their way back to reintegrate themselves, all on their own.
These are women who were forced into prostitution and endured all that it entails for over 10 years. They belonged to a part of society which is rarely spoken of and which rarely speaks - the mute, the exploited, the oppressed.
Extreme poverty and lack of education subjugated them to a life where disease, abuse and despair rules. They were sold into the flesh trade by a family member or friend, or were born into it. Either way, it was not something that they could will away, not even when they tried and bled for it.
“It is rare for women to escape from the clutches of brothel owners,” they told MiD DAY. “Once someone is pushed into this business, they gradually forget the beauty of the outer world. They get overwhelmed by their unreal surroundings and continue working in this profession. That is how it is.” But these women beat all odds to get out of it. They managed to emancipate themselves in body and spirit.
On International Women’s day, MiD DAY speaks with three former sex workers who chose to leave the trade and dedicate themselves for the welfare of other sex workers. These women now work with Prerana, an anti-trafficking association that works to prevent second-generation prostitution, and for the rights and safety of sex workers in Mumbai.
These three women make up not even a fraction of the 10,000 sex workers who trawl the red light areas near Grant Road in the city. But their stories can inspire those still trapped in prostitution, they believe. And that is why they insisted that they be identified with their real names here, since they want to tell the world how they segued from a netherworld into one where they can lead respectable lives.
‘I want to be a nurse’
Laxmi Murale (38) came to the city in 1988 and, for the past 25 years, has been living in the basti. Her mother-in-law was a brothel owner and a prostitute herself. Laxmi hails from a village in Karnataka. She was married off when she was 13.
Her husband was detected with HIV+ while undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. He passed away in 1998 and since then she has been on her own trying to support her children. When she and her three children underwent the HIV+ tests, the kids were found to be in the clear but she tested positive.
“My husband and I tested positive in the HIV tests. I have been on ART since 2005. I still live in the basti but spend my entire day working for Prerna, the rights group. My husband contracted the virus through some injections from a local doctor and I contracted it from him. I am glad that my children are safe.” Laxmi recently cleared her Std XII exams from Nashik Board and applied for a bachelor’s in arts. She wants to become a nurse or a midwife with a hospital and work for public welfare.
A proud mother
Rekha Shah (35) who hails from Calcutta came to the city in search of a job in 2002. She was married to a man from a village in West Bengal, who worked as a waiter in a hotel. Rekha belonged to a poor family and never had the opportunity to get an education.
When she was two-months pregnant with her first child, she had a fight with her husband and left the house. A woman in the neighbourhood promised her a job in Mumbai as a maid in a rich household. It was after arriving here that she realised that she had been prostituted. “I had no idea where I would live, how I would earn my living.
There was only one choice left to me and I took it. I had been in the sex trade for 10 years, with no escape out of there. I returned to my village once for the delivery of my first child and told my parents that I worked as a maid in Mumbai.”
But Rekha left that murky world two years ago and has been working with Prerana ever since. She is a member of Prerana group, for creating HIV awareness, and she counsels sex workers to leave the profession. She also baby-sits for the sex workers and helps prevent second-generation prostitution. “I have a daughter and a son who are studying in municipal schools. I want my children to be away from this world of pain and dirt. I want my children to be able to tell their friends proudly about what I do for a living.”
Her happy, new life
Zulekha Shaikh (35) hails from a village near Belgaum and was forced to join prostitution by a family friend. Zulekha, poor and illiterate, was 11 when she was looking for a job to support her family. Her neighbour promised her a job in the city but brought her here to sell her to a brothel owner in Jamuna Mansion.
Zulekha tried to run away thrice but every time the goons running the brothel caught her and beat her up. The fear of being thrashed kept her from trying to escape again. She has been out of the trade for 10 years now. “I have been through hell and back while living in the brothel. I was forced to remain in this profession for over 14 years. An ageing goon in the area tried to force me into a marriage with him. I refused as I was already living with his family. Finally unable to bear his torture, I escaped to Bhiwandi.”
Later, a man working near the brothel offered to marry her and rescue her from the sex trade. Zulekha then converted into Islam and has been living independently ever since. A mother of two, she works as a cook as well as at Prerana’s daycare facility. She visits red-light districts and persuades women to quit this profession and live a better life. Now that the three have chosen a new life for themselves, they are proud to be living independently, without stigma or servility.