#3 : Working in the Red-Light Area amid the pandemic

Reehan Baig Mirza

I have been a part of Prerana for the last 13 years. My colleagues Nilima, Vaishali, Sheetal, and I work in the red light areas of Kamathipura and Falkland Road. I was 19 years old when I started working in Prerana, and in all my years of work, I have never seen the red light areas so quiet and still as they are now.

There is hardly any movement, streets and bylanes are empty, shops are shut, no movement of vehicles, no women soliciting, no brawls and no men standing at different corners “checking out” women. All I see now are barricades everywhere and police making rounds to ensure that no men are entering the brothels, and no women are soliciting on the streets. There are some common citizens, representatives from NGOs or MCGM, and police representatives carrying out relief work. Since the lockdown, Prerana’s immediate response has been focused on providing relief supplies to single women and their children living in the brothels of the red light areas in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. Through this article, I hope to share what one day of work looks like through the lockdown.

Encounters on my way to the Center

It was a Tuesday morning, my colleagues and I were to meet at our center located in Kamathipura for our check-in meetings and also to discuss how we could reach out to every woman from the Kamathipura and Falkland Road brothels, to ensure that they get free ration through the public distribution systems.

Vaishali and I were together, heading towards our center located in Kamathipura when we met   Kasturi on the way. One of her eyes looked blue and swollen. She became conscious as soon as she realized we had noticed the same. Before we could ask her about it, Kasturi said “aadmi ne mara kal sham ko” (My partner hit me yesterday evening) “He wanted to take away the relief supplies and sell them as he wanted money to buy alcohol. I resisted and he hit me. All this happened in front of my children.  I felt bad that my children had to witness this.” Her immediate response as she realized that we were worried about her wellbeing was “Don’t worry didi, I will be fine”. We continued talking to her to understand if we could help her in any way. She told us that she did not want to take the matter to the police, or see a doctor so we asked her to come to the center and collect some cooked food and grocery supplies. Initially, we felt a little helpless about her situation at the brothel but we were glad to have found a way to help her without pressuring her.  

Before reaching Kamathipura, we also had to meet Rani and her mother.  7-year-old Rani lives with her mother who is from Pune and has been in the sex trade for the last 9-10 years and lives in the red-light area. A week ago when Rani went to get chai and bun maska (bread with butter) for herself and her mother, a “gardule(a person with a habit of excessive drug use) approached her, pulled her in a corner and touched her inappropriately. Rani immediately screamed; people gathered and she ran away from the unsafe situation and reported the matter to her mother. Her mother, Sheela, wanted to report the incident to the police so she approached Vaishali, and together they went to the police station. The incident was reported, an FIR filed and the accused was arrested. Today was going to be our follow-up visit to check on Rani and Sheela. We entered the brothel where they live and saw that Rani was sleeping. Sheela said Rani was doing well. Sheela’s first question when she saw us was, “Is the accused still in prison?” We informed her that he still was, and no one had applied for his bail. 

We reminded Sheela about the online counseling session that was scheduled for Rani with our counselor the next day. She said she remembered and asked us not to worry and told us that she will not require a reminder. We left from there and continued towards the center. Till we reached there, Vaishali kept talking about the Life Skills Education sessions we conduct for our children twice a month.  She said that our discussions in the sessions have helped build a better presence of mind in our children, and this is how Rani managed to get away from the unsafe situation. Vaishali added, “Since we had covered personal safety in detail, Rani’s response of ‘fight and flight’ helped her to react immediately. She tried her best to do what she had learned even though she was frightened and agitated.”

The changing roles of NCC amid the pandemic

When we reached the Kamathipura center, there were five women sitting in a corner at the center. They greeted us and said that they had just come to meet us and had no particular work. One of the women, Mumtaz shared that she would like to volunteer for the relief supplies distribution the next time we give out food kits. Nilima, my other colleague, assured Mumtaz that she would be called when we do the distribution.  All of them suggested that for the next time we should consider giving them Sooji, Poha, and some pulses in the relief kit instead of rice.  Mumtaz told us that many people gave them rice and even MCGM packets had rice. We assured her that we will definitely try to consider her suggestion. Rabiya smiled at us and said, “Ho sakega to rakel bhi dena Bai” (Give us kerosene if possible Bai).

After some time, Rabiya asked us if she could sleep for a while at the center. Before we could respond, she added “In the brothel, the Brothel keeper is bickering with us for everything as we have not been able to make money. We have not paid her rent and now she also gets upset if we put on the fan. I will sleep just for a while, please don’t refuse” she said. 

Durga is the mother of a daughter who we have known for over 8 years now. Her daughter Nandini has been attending our Night Care Center since she was 3 years old. When Durga saw us she said, “Don’t forget that I have appointed Prerana to take care of my daughter in case I get Corona”. This was not the first time a mother had said this to us. In the last three months, we have often heard this statement and have realized that the women wanted us to reassure them that we would take care of their children. These were real fears that they had due to the coronavirus situation. I was tempted to tell her the entire formal procedure for us to take care of Nandini but we knew all she wanted was to be reassured and to hear that we were there for her children so I said “You take the necessary precautions and nothing will happen to you. We will help you and your child. Don’t worry.”

Sheetal joined us at this time after returning from her outreach work. She told us that in one of the lanes,  Anna (a local political aspirant) had held a meeting with some women and had asked them to submit their Aadhar card details as he was in discussion with a donor who could support them with their rent for at least one month and more, if possible. She further added that she had met another mother, Renuka who told her that Baby’s (a child in our center) mother had sold the ration we had given last month. Sheetal asked Renuka what Baby’s mother might have done with the money. “She bought Kerosene” was the reply. Having heard this, Vaishali immediately turned around and said that the next time a donor wants to sponsor relief work, we must ask them to support by contributing towards Kerosene and data recharge for the school-going children. I immediately told them that most probably in today’s call we will get to know if two of our donors have sanctioned funds to support our school and college-going children with mobile data recharge so that they could continue to pursue education online. “Hope this comes through,” said Vaishali.  “Data recharge is important at this stage as children are missing out on their studies and mothers have no money for the recharge”, she added.

The struggles of being from the Red-light Area

Vaishali then informed the group that during her outreach work yesterday in Falkland road, she met some women who told her that Dhandah (trade) had not begun. The police are vigilant and are not allowing the entry of customers into the red light areas. Ramki, a mother of two children, from Uttar Pradesh had told Vaishali that some women were in touch with their customers over the phone. If the customer booked them; they would book a room in a lodge instead of calling their clients to the brothels of Falkland Road. Ramki also told her that her regular customers were happy with Khatta Meetha conversations (small talk of explicit nature) over the phone after which they later transferred the money.  Many said that their customers had gone to their villages and the others who were here did not have jobs. Their regular clients had no income and so they did not visit them as they had no means to pay the women. Sheetal added that during her outreach to the brothels, she now witnesses many verbal altercations between the Gharwalis (brothel keepers) and the women. All of them are frustrated because of the lack of income. While the women do not have money to give to the Gharwali, the Gharwalis are also not able to make money themselves and their collective financial condition is making it harder for all of them. Many women would use the phrase “Hum na ghar ke rahe na ghat ke” (we are out of options). Women are in distress here but are unable to go home as they have no money and nothing to take with them. The situation in their villages is equally bad and they tell us that they will not be welcomed home if they go empty-handed.

During our work in the past few months in red light areas, we have seen that while the women struggle with finances, the children also continue to get affected adversely because of the situation. We observed this when Rohan, a 14-year-old boy who studies in eight grade in school recently. He has been associated with us for a long time and was also one of the eight children who went to Canada in 2019 to be a part of a cross-cultural event by YUVA Arts Project. Recently, his mother had reached out to Prerana about his “disappearance”. We helped look for Rohan but he eventually came back himself. Nilima asked Vaishali about Rohan when we met at the Center. Vaishali said “He came back and is now with his mother. He is fine. When I asked him why he left the house, he said he was upset with his mother and he remembered the rule of managing anger which is to ‘take time out and go for a walk’ so he did that. He left the house, took a walk and since he had money, he bought tea and biscuits. When his anger subsided he returned to his mother.” She further added that she had met him and his mother during the discussion she had about revised safety rules. Rohan had looked at her, smiled, and reassured her asking her not to worry. “Mujhe sab pata hai, sab rules Yaad hai” (I remember the rules that have been taught).

Just then Chaya, another one of my colleagues, who has been working from home since the lockdown, and does most of the coordination regarding relief supplies called to tell us that she had booked groceries for 200 women with Apna Bazar and the same would be delivered to the center next week. We were all happy to hear this. 

We had to finish our work of making the list of women who had Aadhar cards and could access the ration at PDS shops. While working, I thought to myself that I am glad that my work allows me to help these women and children during these unprecedented circumstances. The relief work that Prerana had undertaken wasn’t charity; it was to ensure that their dignity is maintained.  Coronavirus has affected everyone and especially the red light areas, but I am glad that my team and I could be of some use to these women during these times. They trust Prerana with their children and they think of us as their support systems and when the time came for us to support them, we did.  I realize that no matter what happens the well-being of these women and children will always be on my mind. With this thought, I got ready for our weekly check-in call.

I am Reehan Mirza and this is my experience of being a social worker in red light areas during the pandemic.

(As narrated to Priti Patkar)

Disclaimer : All names of women and children have been changed in this article.

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