The last few days have been a continued whirlwind of activities, consisting mostly of visiting brothels in red-light districts, meeting sex workers, visiting testing and wellness centers, and experiencing a variety of grassroots programming. We have been going at an overwhelming pace trying to see as much as possible. We're all a little exhausted, but also exhilarated by the people and programs we've seen.
There is absolutely nothing romantic, sexy, or alluring about a Third World red-light district. It is a dirty and depressing place. We drove to Falkland Road, one of Mumbai's largest red-light districts, and got out of our car to observe. The sex workers and their clients continued doing business as usual because YouthAIDS poses no threat to them—not that it would necessarily matter. Prostitution is "illegal" in India, but many of the clients of sex workers are policemen, even judges. Sex trafficking is big business (all over the world, even in the United States), and often these officials are getting greased to look the other way. In doing so, they contribute to the brutalization, enslavement, and rape. And the sex workers we've met said that on the chance the workers do get arrested, the police beat them, rape them, and turn them back out on the street once they pay the bail. Sex workers have no status. They are denied their legal, civic, and moral rights.
There are three types of prostitutes in India. Most are brothel-based, which means they live/work together in one house and are responsible for paying the madam whatever her fees are for room and board as well as her cut for each client. There are also independent sex workers that work from their homes without a madam. Usually their husbands will pimp them out. Lastly, there are the 50/50 sex workers. These women usually have been working with a madam for longer periods, are older (therefore not as employable), and are allowed to keep 50 percent of their profit. They often live somewhere else, and are charged rental fees. This is a part of the sex worker world that is "seen," but there is an even darker world within the sex industry.
Many young women from neighboring countries are sold into the sex trade industry by their families or husbands. They don't speak the language, can't read or write, and arrive here—confused and alone. They are told that they have to buy their "freedom" back by working as prostitutes. Sometimes the girls are as young as eight years old. Buying their freedom can take years, since the madam always finds ways to fatten up the debt. Sometimes they simply lock the girl in a room, beaten, raped, and deprived of sunlight and companionship. Clients are then brought to her, one by one. She has no say, no rights. Her spirit broken, she stops fighting back (assuming she fights at all). She is not given condoms, and she doesn't ask for any because she doesn't know she needs to. Therefore, she is at high risk of contracting STIs and HIV/AIDS. If she becomes seriously ill, she is abandoned. Left homeless—without family, status, or friends—she will inevitably die.
YouthAIDS has managed to infiltrate this underground world. They have traveling doctors, who go into these brothels and will treat these young girls for STIs, HIV/AIDS, and pregnancies. This is a job that must be so unimaginably difficult. If the doctors go to the police (assuming the police are even interested), they run the risk of ruining the connection into that community. Then the girls’ lives are even more radically endangered. YouthAIDS' first plan of action was to enter into the system. The next is to initiate change.