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“I was sold for $200 and now I’m a sex slave”
by Jan Goodwin
Marie Claire magazine
July 2000

In India, millions of girls – some as young as 11 – are sold into prostitution. Beaten, raped and forced to live in cages, they have little hope of escape and run an ever-increasing risk of death from AIDS.

Mumbai, a megalopolis of 20 million people, best known by its former name Bombay, is a city in which extravagant mansions overlook the largest slum on earth. Not far from Western-style restaurants that serve the bejeweled elite, one-third of the city’s residents live without running water in hovels constructed of plastic, cardboard and metal sheeting.

In the midst of such poverty and wealth, and far from the routes cleared for President Clinton’s recent state visit, is the world’s largest red-light district, Kamathipura. India has more than two million prostitutes, according to the latest government-sponsored survey. But that was nine years ago, and today the number is considerably higher, possibly double. Five hundred thousand of them, half of whom are minors and indentured sex slaves, suffer hellish existences in Mumbai’s brothels.

Lured from impoverished villages throughout India, Nepal and Bangladesh, young girls are tapped by local recruiters who promise to give them coveted jobs working as domestics or in factories in the big cities. Or they are sold by relatives or neighbors. “If a father has five daughters, he sells two to feed the other three,” says Durga Ghimere, head of ABC Nepal, an agency aiding former sex slaves. Others are duped by brothel procurers who marry them and as many as one hundred other victims. Illiterate and raised to be compliant, these girls have no idea of their fates until they are abandoned in the brothels, but by then it’s too late.

Young girls are auctioned off to the brothels regularly: A pre-teen with light skin goes for as much as $1000; darker-skinned girls sell for $200 to $300. But such sums are recouped by the brothel in a girl’s first few weeks of work. A customer typically pays $45 for a virgin; after her first time, she’ll be turning tricks for one dollar each, with the price dropping to 25 cents in the early hours of the morning, when the customers thin out.

“I was auctioned to the highest bidder when I was 12,” says Yellu. “He became my master, and I had to have sex with him. At 14, he sold me to this brothel. I’ve been here ever since.” It’s where she will stay until she succumbs to tuberculosis, malaria or AIDS. “Seven girls have died from AIDS in this room in the last two years,” she says.

The brothel where Yellu works is a tiny room at the top of a rickety staircase, its banister greasy with the sweat of countless customers’ hands. Inside, there is barely space to move: Three wooden cots, divided by tattered curtains, take up most of the floor space; two more cots are in the hallway. Yellu’s children, aged 5 and 18 months, play on the floor. It’s here that Yellu and her companions service customers from 5 p.m. until dawn. But since the brothel is open for business 24 hours a day, drop-in customers are common at any hour. Outside, on Falkland Road, where bordellos line the street, a mass of men window-shop the human wares.

Yellu is a Devidasi, a socially created prostitute, who was dedicated at the age of 9 by her family to the goddess Yellamma. Devdasis, who come from India’s lowest social caste, the Untouchables, or Dalits, are bonded as slaves to serve higher castes. A few become concubines of the wealthy; the rest are sold off as prostitutes at puberty to appease gods and guard against diseases. The centuries-old system of Devdasis was outlawed in 1987, but since the fine is only 2500 rupees ($59) – far less than a virgin girl brings at auction – the law is largely ignored by parents and police alike.

Up to 80 percent of India’s two million prostitutes are infected with HIV, and a third of those have AIDS.

Now 25, Yellu spends any free time in her tiny room, sleeping when she can, or nursing her youngest child. In the corner is a box off government-distributed condoms, but they are poorly made of thick rubber. “We try to use condoms now that we know about HIV. But man y men won’t use them. They say it spoils their pleasure. And if we insist, they go somewhere else.”

Yellu is lucky she can even suggest a condom to a customer. Girls like Bibi never had that choice. Now 13, Bibi learned recently that she is HIV-positive. However, along with most HIV-positive sex slaves, she is unlikely to receive any medication. Untreated, these infected prostitutes deteriorate rapidly, and once they are too sick to work, they are tossed out on the street to die a painful death.

When she was 11, Bibi was brought to Mumbai from Calcutta by two men. They promised her father that she would be given work looking after a house and a baby. Relieved to have one less mouth to feed, he looked forward to the day his daughter would send some of her earnings home. Instead, Bibi was sold for 10,000 rupees ($238) to a brothel and told she couldn’t leave until she paid back her purchase price, plus 10 percent interest.

Describing her first night in the brothel, Bibi says: “I didn’t even have breasts yet, but men forced me to have sex. They hurt me bad. I cried for the next two years. Nobody cared.” Bibi was confined to a narrow cubicle, some 28 inches wide, known as a pinjra, and told that any attempt to escape would result in a severe beating or even torture. Locked in this airless, windowless cage, she was left without food or water for days. Then she was gang-raped to insure her compliance. Her world soon became a thin, gruesomely stained mattress, on which she serviced customers day after day, night after night. She was never allowed to refuse a customer or a sex act. Not surprisingly, Bibi soon fell ill. “I was having bad fevers,” she says, “but no matter how sick I was, I had to let customers to what they wanted.”

India now has more people living with HIV/AIDS than any country in the world. According to the latest UNAIDS statistics, the country has about four million infected adults and children. And that rate is doubling every 18 to 24 months, says I.S. Gilada, M.D., a leading Indian AIDS expert. Surveys show that 67 to 80 percent of India’s prostitutes are infected with HIV, and a third of those have AIDS.

Tragically, as the incidence of HIV in India rises, the average age of the indentured prostitutes declines. “Now, with HIV, most men prefer 10- to 12-year-old prostitutes,” says Vipula Kadri, founder of Save the Children India, “while a decade ago, they wanted more experienced girls.” Persistent myths in India hold that sex with young virgins not only restores a man’s virility, but also cures him of sexually transmitted diseases. Consequently, very young prostitutes, who are the most vulnerable to HIV because their vaginal and anal tissue is frequently torn, are worked the hardest, servicing up to 40 customers a day. They are also made to work when pregnant, often until a few days before delivery, or are back working within a week after they have abortions.

Kamla was pregnant and 22 when she was sold to a brothel three years ago. Like all the others, she was told she couldn’t leave until she had paid back her purchase price. “I didn’t want to work because I was pregnant, but the brothel manager told me I had no choice.” Almost immediately after Kamla gave birth, she was forced back to work. “I’m very frightened one of the clients will abuse my daughter,” she says. “I don’t want her to end up like me.”

Babies are placed under brothel beds and drugged with opium to make them sleep, so the clients won’t know they’re there.

Kamla’s fears are very real. The children of sex slaves are often inducted into the profession at an early age. “Customers view the children in brothels as bonuses,” says Priti Patkar, a social worker who co-founded Prerana, a volunteer agency that runs a night crèche for the children of prostitutes in India. “Kids are placed under the beds in the brothels because there is nowhere else for them to go. Babies are drugged with opium to make them sleep, so the clients won’t know they’re there. Not surprisingly, these children become second-generation prostitutes. In the brothels, girl babies are welcomed, because it’s cheaper to breed prostitutes than import them, whereas in normal Indian life, everyone wants to have boys.”

The night crèche, in the middle of the red-light district, gives kids a safe place to sleep, two meals a day and a bath. But because of limited funding, only 80 children can be cared for, and only those prostitutes who have paid off their purchase price are free to drop off their children for the night. In addition to the services the crèche provides, the Prerana staff also tries to empower prostitutes to use condoms. “But if Indian wives can’t get their husbands to use condoms,” ask Patkar, “how can sex slaves, who are totally powerless, get men use them?”

With the risk of infection so great, why do Indian men visit these brothels on a regular basis? Sunil, 27, who works in a travel agency, summed it up as he left a brothel on a Saturday afternoon: “I come here for my enjoyment. I like to visit different ones to experiment. The Nepalese girls are the best, because they strip totally naked, and I like their golden skin.” He says he always uses a condom, and adds that he’ll stop visiting brothels when he marries next year. “then I’ll have a wife, and I won’t need to.” But he insists his bride be a virgin, and sees no double standard in that. “Why” Because I’m a man, of course.”

“The police are involved up to the top levels, and they are making millions off these young girls.”

The number of vulnerable women who find themselves at the mercy of abusive customers, brothel managers and usurious loan sharks (who advance them money to buy food and water while they6’re in debt to the brothels) is increasing at an alarming rate, but the situation is routinely overlooked by those in positions to change it. In a recent UNICEF report on sex trafficking in Mumbai, the authors concluded: “Politicians are indifferent, and children are seen as commodities. It is rare, if at all, that traffickers and brothel owners are punished because politicians and public health officials are in league with the mafia that runs the lucrative flesh trade.

Sex trafficking … is now the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, behind drugs and guns.

“It is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world”

– former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright

The police, too, have their hands in the sex trade, collecting weekly protection money from the brothel managers. “The police are involved up to the top levels,” says Colin Gonsalves of Mumbai’s Human Rights Law Network, “and they are making millions off these young girls.”

Sex trafficking, of course, is not limited to India. It is now the third largest source of profits for international organized crime, behind drugs and guns. “It is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world,” says Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, “and to one degree or another it afflicts every nation, including the U.S.”

Some 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are trafficked into the States every year, according to a new C.I.A. report. In a recent high-profile case, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a 62-year-old Indian millionaire and the wealthiest landlord in Berkeley, California, was charged with arranging for Indian nationals to illegally enter the U.S., and allegedly importing minors for sex. He is currently free on $10 million bail.

The case came to light after 17-year-old Sitha Vemireddy died in his apartment and was discovered to be pregnant. Sitha’s death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from an improperly vented heater. Her 15-year-old sister, Lalitha, was found unconscious and is now in protective custody.

Lalitha told Berkeley police and INS agents that she was turned over to Reddy by her parents at the age of 12. Sitha and Lalitha’s parents, who have four girls and a boy, had spent a $1000 dowry marrying off their oldest daughter and could not afford to arrange marriages for their other daughters. Since girls’ father worked for Reddy, his two daughters were sent to work in Reddy’s home. Lalitha said that Reddy regularly engaged in sexual intercourse with her, Sitha and their 17-year-old roommate, also from India, and continued to do so in the U.S. The U.S. attorney’s criminal case against Reddy, who faces up to 70 years imprisonment, is expected to come to trial later this year.

In the meantime, the child sex trade continues to flourish around the world. At its roots is gender inequality, says Ruchira Gupta, a UNICEF media consultant who works with sex slaves. “It’s not about changing laws, it’s about the need to change attitudes toward girls and sex and sexuality. But it’s hard to get people to talk about the trafficking of women and children because of the underlying sexual component. We have to break that silence.”

Only then, perhaps, will young girls stop feeling as one did after her initiation into the sex trade: “The first day someone slept with me, I felt as if God had died.”

“Sexual Slavery Rampant”
by Paul Shepard
Associated Press appearing in The Denver Post
February 23, 2000

“Slaves To Lust”
Underage Nepalese girls are a valuable commodity in India
The Sunday Times, Weekend Magazine
July 18,1999