The rooms were tiny, the hallways and stair cases narrow. Men came in and out – not likely to be customers, we were told, because it was day time. They might have been pimps, or husbands. We saw children as well – running throughout- in their rooms. Apparently at night time, the narrow pathways become non-existent, packed with people. The stench that came from the rooms, and halls, were so bad that we had to make every effort not to cover our mouths in disgust. I noticed a closed circuit security camera – installed to track the movements of the women.
I couldn’t believe I was actually inside and no one was trying to kick us out or even resist our presence. In fact, we were greeted with, not so much as a smile, but rather a passive acceptance of our company. The Prerarna workers (our guides) spoke to the women with familiarity.
Prerarna is an organization that provides services to children of women who have been trafficked and sexually exploited – and then trapped in a life of prostitution, living in brothels, with little to no chance or hope of escaping. Despite the illegalities of the entire industry (commonly termed sexual slavery), escaping the life is nearly impossible and the cycle often continues with the children born in the brothels. Prerarna’s ultimate objective is to prevent the next generation, i.e. the vulnerable children, from falling prey to exploitation. . However, the organization also provides highly comprehensive services and programs ranging from prevention to rehabilitation, and is at the forefront of policy making and advocacy in trafficking prevention and protection of victims. They operate three centres in the midst of the red light districts, and one residential care facility away from the city, that caters to kids from 1 to 18 years of age. The centre’s name is Naunihall; it means childhood, in the local language of Hindhi.
At present, we were in one of the brothels in the Falkland Road red light district. Guided by Pravin Patkarji, the co-founder along with his wife Priti, of Prerarna’s day/night center, we met the women and children who live there. It was tragic to see these mothers trapped into this life of prostitution. Our guide painted a very grim picture of how life used to be for the children of Falkland Road before Prerarna came into the picture. Babies and young children would sleep right under the beds of their mother’s as they worked. Mothers would often drug their crying children, so they wouldn’t be a disturbance during working hours. Young boys would pimp out their own mothers and their own sisters.
On our way out, we met one girl. When we saw her, we all thought to ourselves, “My god she’s young,” and hoped she hadn’t been exploited. She was the daughter of a prostitute and had some physical deformities, and apparently some learning disabilities as well – some genetic, some due to drugs she was exposed to as a child. She was taken initially to the Naunihal Residential Care Centre. It was there that they realized her learning disabilities were more severe than they thought. They had no choice but to transfer her to a different school that could better tend to her needs. . She also needed close health monitoring through frequent visits to a hospital which could be better managed from this place and her mother was keen on doing that herself. When the girl saw Pravinji, her eyes lit up – she thought maybe this was a sign she could return to Naunihal. She showed him her marks from school. She was doing really well. It was heartbreaking to see this girl, with so much promise, having to come back to the brothel for summer holidays. I asked the girl whether it was difficult to return. She said very simply and matter of factly, “Yes, I have that problem.” But this was her home – her mother was there.
Prerarna has been running a centre in this district for the last 26 years. Since the establishment of this organization in 1986, over 9,000 children have come through the centre’s doors. Not one has been exploited. A majority of the staff that work there are children who have grown up in that area, gone on to college and returned to work at the centre, a huge testament to the work they’re doing.
Reflecting on their outcomes, I think one of the main reasons they have had so much success with their organization is essentially their approach. While most would condemn women living and working from brothels (perhaps unaware they never asked for such a life), Prerarna recognizes that nothing (no social or government institution) can replace a mother’s love and makes preserving the mother-child relationship a priority. They give the women the respect of being mothers. They don’t force their services on the women or children, but make it a choice. They withhold any judgements they might have (which is probably non-existent anyway) on the women, given what they do for a living. How empowering that must be for the women–to be able to remain the primary decision maker in their child’s life, when everything else around them has already been decided for them.
Perarana, like most organizations and people who work in anti-trafficking, know that these mothers, who are prostitutes, have been exploited, and are victims, who can’t escape even if they wanted to. Why? Because they have nowhere to go. Pravinji told us that if he were to make a call right then, five hundred women would walk out of the brothel. “If I gave them a couple of days, two or three thousand would walk out. But where would they go?” So the problem these women find themselves in now, is that they are trapped. And unless they can make a life for themselves outside the brothel, which many have over the years, it becomes even more dangerous to live outside the brothel than in it.
The Day/Night Centre ensures that all of the children go to school and monitors their attendance and progress. At the centre, they provide the needed medical and psychological services. They provide recreation — they believe the right of every child is to have a childhood (hence the name of the residential care facility). They check on the children periodically. It being summer vacation, the children are home more – and more exposed to life in the brothel than otherwise.
Our ride out of the district back into the “main” part of town was eerily quiet. Clearly, everyone was reflecting on what we had just seen. It was the first time any of us were confronted with such a horrible reality that would be impossible to ignore.
Later that evening, a group of friends and I visited the famous Juhu Beach, far away from the red light district. We thought we might find a less crowded spot (away from the hundreds of food vendors and tourists). As we sat on the beach, we noticed some girls standing with some distance between them, their backs to the ocean, facing us. A group of young men approached one, they shared some words, and he moved on to another. As we saw one of the girls leave with one of the young men, going to a more secluded area, we understood what perhaps should have been more immediately obvious, given our day. Once again, we found ourselves quietened by the realization that what we saw in the morning was not limited to the “red light.”
As we walked back to the main road, I couldn’t help but think about Prerarna and the work they do. They are literally cutting the trafficking flesh industry by the legs by preventing children from becoming exploited … and they do it all expecting nothing in return, except perhaps the hope that the work they do contributes a world where children have their childhood and grow up to lead a happy and free life.
I don’t know if it’s something you can put into words – at least I find it pretty difficult. It’s been over a week since our visit to the brothel and the only words that come to mind that could possibly describe what I felt while walking through the dilapidated structure and matchbox work/living spaces – is hell on earth. And yet, the staff at Prerarna are literally in the trenches everyday as they work within this covert system to fight it. It’s impossible not to be awed by their achievements and commitment.
Srividya Sheshadri is a Research Associate at Ammachi Labs, a research department out of Amrita University dedicated to developing technologies designed to improve quality of life for the most underserved sectors of society.
For more information on Prerarna you can go to: www.preranaantitrafficking.org/
Featured image via wikipedia.org