Into the Red Light District
A little over a week ago, Ellen and I went out walking in Pune. We were strolling through the wholesale district when we reached a large junction, and I asked Ellen, “Left, right, or straight?”
We went straight.
Last week, I discovered that had Ellen and I turned left or right we would have walked directly into the center of Pune’s Red Light District, Budhwar Peth. Nearly 4000 women live and work there as sex workers; Budhwar Peth is in fact India’s third-largest Red Light District, after Mumbai and Kolkata (and Mumbai is rumored to be Asia’s largest, larger even than Bangkok). The streets there are lined with the same worn-down wooden and concrete buildings, gritty sidewalks and teeming crowds of people, rickshaws and motorbikes as elsewhere in downtown Pune, but the stoops and stairs and street corners are littered with young women–devastatingly young women–and hordes of men, none of whom meet each other’s or the women’s eyes.
I found myself on the border between the wholesale and Red Light districts again on my way to Kayakalp, an NGO (and one of Sangam’s community partners) that works with female sex workers in Budhwar Peth. They keep their office smack-dab in the middle of the Red Light District, on a street overflowing with men looking for sex and women displaying their bodies in cheap, glittery saris and too much makeup. When Kayakalp first came to Budhwar Peth, seventeen years ago, none of the sex workers, brothel owners, or police were willing to listen to–let alone trust–the organization. Now, Kayakalp has a strong relationship with each of those competing factions of the sex work industry, and has won dozens of awards for the change they have brought to Pune’s Red Light District: the HIV infection rate has plummeted, men who once refused to wear condoms now insist on using protection, and the sex workers themselves rely on Kayakalp’s health clinic and creche to keep themselves and their children healthy and safe.
I and the rest of the Sangam staff had the chance to meet Seema Waghmode, the founder of Kayakalp, when we visited the office on Tuesday. We got a tour of the facilities and learned all about Kayakalp, its origins, its services, the neighborhood it works in, and the people it works for. Because I had designed the Kayakalp banner at Sangam (we display informational banners on our community partners in the hall), much of what Seema told us I already knew. The women who work in Budhwar Peth arrive by force: they are trafficked from across India and Asia. Some are as young as twelve. They are bought by brothel owners and forced to hand over the majority of what they earn to these “madams.” Prostitution is illegal in India, so they are frequently raided by the police, who invariably cart the girls off, never to return. Some of them send the girls from jail back to their homes, but usually inform their families about the nature of their work, which often results in the girls being cast out or their families ostracized; Seema said some parents even commit suicide upon learning their daughter worked as a prostitute. Other police, the corrupt ones, merely sell the girls on to another brothel somewhere else.
Even though I knew all of this information already, Seema managed to convey it very vividly when she brought out a video she had filmed during a police raid at the brothel across the street from Kayakalp. The video is blurry, shaky, poorly-edited; there are long sequences filmed from a distance of girls being frog-marched from dark brothel doors to a big red and blue police bus with bars on the windows. Every once and a while, though, the camera zooms in and focuses on a girl screaming and crying as the police drag her off. At one point two women on a second story are stripped from their saris as the police tug on the fabric and rip off their clothes as they drag the women out the door. That shot, through the metal grate that serves as a quasi-window to the second-story stairwell in this concrete building of a brothel, made me suck in my breath for a long, shaky moment. It is difficult to make out what is going on until suddenly you see the fabric fall, and a swath of bare stomach appears, and one skinny, trembling arm struggling to gather up the sari and make pleats again, to dress herself, comes into view, even as the police try to force her and the girl doing the same behind her down the stairs. The girl tries again and again to make the pleats, but the fabric falls once more, and she winds it around herself again, futilely, and then the police officer notices that someone is filming, and steps deliberately in front of the girl dressing herself, blocking her violation and the police’s brutality from view.
When the video was over, Seema had some of her staff and peer educators take us to visit a brothel–the very brothel, I think, that featured in the video. We had all been told to dress very plainly, in Indian dress, so as to not call attention to ourselves, but there we were, a gaggle of white women in punjabis, trooping down the street. Everyone stared. And the stares were different, this time, than any others I’ve experienced in India. The stares were hungry, and the stares were curious, and they were impertinent, and they were unashamed. We were frankly and carefully appraised as we walked up a five-story stairwell, the steps thick, heavy slabs of concrete, past literally hundreds of men: old, young, some in suits, some in rags, some fat, some skinny, some handsome, others not, all of them watching us and clearly thinking that they were in luck–new girls, foreign girls, had arrived.
We took Priya, Aarti and Sayali, our volunteers-in-training, on this visit with us. Sixteen, seventeen,and eighteen, respectively, our VITs are all from the neighborhood near Sangam, and belong to a local Guide unit that meets on the campsite. They had never been to this part of town before, even though it is literally around the corner from Laxmi Road, the major shopping center we visit all the time. As soon as we left Kayakalp’s office and stepped into the street, Aarti grabbed my hand, and did not let go. She kept her eyes on her feet as we walked up the stairs. I never had a moment to feel disgusted or uncomfortable about the way the men were staring at me, because I felt immediately responsible for making Aarti feel safe and at ease, and I knew my fear would only worsen hers. I smiled, squeezed her hand, tried to whisper a few chatty, funny things as we trooped up and up. And I found that I wasn’t scared at all. These men could do nothing to hurt me, their eyes could not degrade me; they were the ones visiting a brothel, at four o’clock in the afternoon, on a weekday. They were the ones perpetuating this system. They were the ones paying for sex.
By the time I had finished having these thoughts, we had reached our stop. The “most beautiful” (which usually means the lightest-skinned), most expensive girls are kept at the top, and the “goods” and prices decrease floor by floor; we had gone to the second-highest floor, and were split into two groups before being sent into the brothels themselves. We entered a lobby that was more like a living room crossed with a train station: benches pressed against both walls for the customers to sit on and wait, a large mirror against one wall, a shrine built on a very high shelf near the ceiling, and no windows. A curtain hung in front of the entrance; there was no door. When we arrived, the woman guarding this curtain shooed the men waiting inside away–into the back of the minuscule apartment, to be “entertained,” or out the door, to find somewhere else. Then five of the sex workers came in and sat on one bench, and Sayali, Aarti, Priya, Jen (the Programme Manager, and my boss) and Em (our new Marketing & Communications Intern) and I grabbed the opposite one.
After a few awkward moments of silence, Sayali took over as translator and Jen asked a series of questions, and suddenly we were laughing and chatting in a mishmash of English and Hindi. We asked the girls where they were from–Kolkata, Nepal, Darjeeling and other places I had not heard of but sensed were very far away–and how long they had been here–two, three, five, ten, fifteen years. Some were very young, I would have guessed about Aarti and Priya’s age, and some seemed slightly older–mid-twenties, maybe even early thirties. One woman, the one from Darjeeling, looked to be very old: she was wrinkled, wearing a knit cap over thin hair, and had bad teeth. She had sunglasses on, even though we were inside. She had been there for many years, she said. She had been brought to the brothel as a young girl.
Most of the women said they had come willingly–friends from home had recommended coming to Pune to make “good money.” But Seema had warned us to take their answers with a grain of salt, and it seems unlikely that they had all chosen prostitution as a profession of their own free will, particularly so far away from home. Though they were all smiley and chatty, one woman seemed to connect with us more than the rest–or maybe I just took to her more than the rest. She told us she was married, and had two children, boys, five and three. She was wearing a bright blue kurta, very pink lipstick, and had black, square-rimmed glasses that made her look very bookish, like someone I could have gone to college with. She was about the right age to be attending Davidson, actually, and was the woman who said outright that she regularly goes to Kayakalp for her health checks. When we asked the women if they, in turn, wanted to ask us questions, she was the one who looked ready to do so, but when the others giggled and shook their heads, she did, too. That was when I felt the most frustrated by the whole situation. Despite the horror–the men pushing their heads in the curtain again and again, gawping at us and the sex workers; the fact that they all share just five bedrooms, and those bedrooms are used for sleep and life and work; their lack of money and autonomy (“We have off whenever we want to have off. If we want to have off. Because, well, we can work every day. And then we can earn every day.”)–the women were so friendly, so cheerful. Surely they were faking it a bit, but they also seemed to have done what all humans do in the face of adversity: adapted. And here was this woman, who struck me as bright and interested in the world and eager to communicate, and she was stuck. She was so stuck, and she was never going back to Nepal.
We were not in the room for long–maybe twenty minutes. Then we left, walking past the hordes of men and their unblinking eyes yet again, bundled ourselves into rickshaws, and came home. There was a general debriefing session: everyone found themselves in the breezeway, and we got out all the sweets left over from our sleepover on the campsite the night before, and we chatted about how we felt, what we thought, and how we could help. Minakshi took Aarti, Priya and Sayali aside to make sure they were all okay. And I sat there thinking: I am not surprised.
I was surprised at that. Surprised at how unsurprised, unscandalized, unshocked I felt. We had all been warned that the visit would be traumatizing, that we would see things we didn’t expect: younger-than-young girls, men who mistook us for new sex workers, tiny cramped spaces and other dark, mysterious, scary things. Maybe the warning prevented me from feeling shocked, but I actually think it was simply that I knew what to expect. The inequality of women worldwide, and their mistreatment in so many countries around the world–including my own–has been a topic I have studied, followed in the news, fought against, and experienced personally. I am aware that millions more women like those in Budhwar Peth exist across the globe. Visiting Kayakalp didn’t scandalize me; it made me feel like such a cynic, when I realized that I had not been shocked or disheartened because I already expected the worst.
Coupled with this realization, however, came another discovery. Visiting Kayakalp opened my eyes to my own personal privileges. The feelings of shock and distress I expected to experience at Kayakalp are actually more akin to those I have when I walk through the Tadiwala Road slum near Deep Griha. Poverty, dense living, barefoot children in dirty clothes on filthy streets, hammering nails or wrangling a goat or simply sitting, hungry, tired, when they should be in school, their mothers scrubbing clothes on the slabs outside their tin-roofed houses: these are the things I am not exposed to at home. My privilege at home is to be able to ignore poverty: I don’t need to see it, smell it, hear it, look it in the eye. On the other hand, I do not have the option to ignore women’s issues: they are part of my life, my friends’ lives, the literature I read and the writing I produce. That’s why visiting Kayakalp wasn’t a shock to my system; it was only a frustrating affirmation.
The experience was not what I had expected, but it was an important one. It reminded me that the issues I care about are not imaginary, they are not exaggerated: they are real, and there are women like the bookish girl in the glasses (and so many others) who have the potential to do so much but don’t get the chance. My passion for fighting against these issues is needed. And it also taught me to examine my feelings more deeply: I should have realized by now that how I felt when walking through the Tadiwala Road slum was in need of examination. I am more committed to helping solve violence and harm against women, and I am committed in a new way–in a more meaningful way–to ending poverty overall. It’s not just because of WAGGGS, or the UN Millennium Development Goals. It’s because I have seen these things, and I don’t want anyone else to have to, or anyone to live them.
Because picture-taking is firmly discouraged by Kayakalp, so as not to invade the privacy of the women, I didn’t bring my camera. But, I do think pictures say a lot, so I have added photos that I found on Sushan Skoltey’s blog post on Red Light Districts in India, some of which are of Budhwar Peth and others from other Indian cities’ Red Light areas; as well as 2 photos that I know for sure are from Budhwar Peth and that I found on Flickr. The photos are credited in the captions!