As I walked down Falkland Road, I noticed many women sitting on their porches or standing against the walls. Some of them were talking to each other, or tending to children, or just staring into space. Some retreated inside their rooms as we approached and closed a curtain that separated them from the street, offering them a little privacy from the world. Others watched us as we walked by. I made an attempt to make eye contact as often as I could and was happy when they returned my smile or "hello."
The women were young, old, beautiful, homely, fat, and thin. The only thing they all had in common was that they were poor. The red-light district is in a dirty slum so, of course, the homes and brothels are filthy, small, and severely over-crowded. Often the women have sex with their clients while their children sit on the floor nearby. Most of the women live their, work all day, tend to their children and cook and clean in their spare time. They live a horrible life that robs them of self-respect and dignity. I can only imagine the feelings of anger, sadness, and shame that must lurk so far down inside these women.
Halfway down the main street we were led to a large, white office that was once brothel, now a Wellness Clinic that serves sex workers and their children. This center was an incredible facility run by female doctors to provide all types of services including STI screening and treatment, reproductive, general and child health, as well as counseling and medical monitoring. It provides affordable and accessible health-care services, and ensures appropriate medical treatment in a friendly, non-judgmental way. It was amazing meeting the doctors because of their love and respect for the sex workers and their commitment to serve them respectfully.
What has continually impressed me is the dedication and compassion of the doctors, peer educators, councilors and program managers. These brilliant men and women are highly-educated and could work in environments that are much safer and more glamorous. Instead, they choose to dedicate their time and talents to serve these communities. Although they may often get burnt out, they are passionate about empowering these women with life-saving information. I am inspired by the willingness of people who truly live to serve. It is what feeds them and gives their own life meaning and purpose.
We traveled to another red-light district called Kamathipura, where we were permitted to walk through an actual brothel. The inside of the brothel was one of the darkest, most depressing places I've ever been. The rooms were small, impersonal, and oppressive. The "beds" were raised slabs of concrete. I can't even describe the smell—perhaps a combination of urine, semen, discharge, blood, and sewage. The women sat in corners waiting for their turn to work. There spirit was lifeless. I could feel my heart break for them. Was there a single woman in this place that was ever loved!? Have they ever known trust and safety? What about happiness? Had they ever experienced joy? As I walked through the corridor, I smiled gently at the women and thought about my own life and how fortunate I've been to have so much love in my life. I walk this world with confidence because of the love I have received from my family, friends, and my partner Al. I am fortunate to be in love and know what it is like to be loved back in return. Knowing that there are so many people in this world that don't get to experience this connection saddens my spirit.
I continued walking by each room seeing downcast women.I prayed for each one, "Dear God, let them be safe! Please protect them, help them be free! May they experience joy. May they be loved. May they have food for their children. May no hand hurt or shame them. May they only know Grace!" I silently offered them blessings, hoping that, on some level, they could feel that someone was offering them something that wasn't meant to hurt or betray. Once again, I put myself in check. "Observe, learn, and feel," I told myself, "Do not project! Stay present and let these women teach you."
But what am I supposed to learn from them? What can they possibly teach me?