We climbed the narrow and steep staircase, ducking in places to avoid the ceiling. The stairs were just wide enough for one person at a time. The few windows in the tall building were barred, allowing only a small shaft of light to brighten the landings. When we reached the top, a woman in a pink, flowered Punjabi and checkered dupati greeted us, smiling warmly.
“Welcome,” Suni said. “Sorry for the mess, we’ve just finished a late lunch.”
Suni showed us where to take off our sandals as she cleared a space in her living room for us to sit. She swept the floor and shook out a floor mat, spreading it out for us.
“Would you like something to drink?” she asked. “Coke? Mirinda? Chai? I’ll run to the shop quick to get you whatever you’d like.”
After Suni left her home, one of the many brothels on that street, Jon began to tell us her story. Her story is also Camilla’s story. Rita’s story. It is the story of Jennifer’s mom and Akshay’s mom.
And it is the story of the thousands of prostitutes living in the red light district.
She was sold for 35,000 rupees. (The “new” ones sell for even more.) The man who brought her here was her husband. He left her here and the men used her. The one who used her first paid the most.
And now she is stuck until she can repay the 35,000 rupees she was purchased for. If she tries to leave, she will be killed. She is 23. Or is she 24? She’s not sure. But she knows she has lived and worked at this brothel for seven years, maybe eight, and she has at least seven clients a day. She would like to leave, but then what would she do? Where could she go? How could she be safe?
Suni reappeared with a stack of plastic cups and a sweating bottle of cola. She chatted while she poured us each a drink.
Twenty women live in this small room at the top of the building, if it can even be called a room. It was a terrace that is now covered by a corrugated tin roof. I’m just 5’4” and I couldn’t stand up straight in the room. But it was the most spacious of all the rooms I saw.
The outer walls are barred but otherwise open to the city; tattered tarps are all that keep out the rain, the wind, the scorching sun. When the women aren’t working, they live here. Sleep here. Eat here. Every day, all year. They keep their belongings in padlocked lockers or boxes.
Suni’s mobile phone beeped with a new text message. After a flurry of Marati, Jon explained to us why Suni was the only woman with us right then.
“The women message each other when the police are coming,” he said. “They run away to hide so they don’t have to pay bribes or be arrested. They go several blocks away at least, to the parking garage, and stay there for six, seven hours.”
Would the police come while we were there? How could we explain what we, five women, were doing at this brothel? Would they believe us?
“The police were here about two hours ago,” he continued. “It will be a while before the rest of the women return.”
A few others trickled in. Over the years Jon has built trust with these women. He runs a children’s home and offers to raise their children and give them a chance at a better life. He kept talking with the women, pausing at times to translate for us.
“They say they wish that people like you had come when they were younger, and brought them out of here,” he said. “But now, they are stuck.”
Two years ago, the DTS team was part of bringing two children out of the brothel. Monica was being cared for by two of the women – her own mother, a very beautiful woman, had died of “overwork” as a prostitute. The madam was preparing Monica to take her place. “She will be here to provide for me in my old age,” she had said. But the day the DTS visited in 2009, the madam let Monica leave along with a little boy, Akshay.
“These are the women who cared for Monica,” Jon said. “They are so happy she has left and lives with us. And this is Akshay’s mom.”
Akshay’s mom nodded her head in greeting and gave us a slight smile. A sad smile.
“She visited Akshay at the children’s home one day and brought him to a little store in the neighborhood,” Jon said. “But that day she had also fought with her mom. Her mom knew where Akshay was living and came that day, too. She took Akshay away and now Akshay lives with her, begging in the streets.”
This is not unusual. Another boy at the children’s home, David, was also taken back to the streets. His mother dresses him in Muslim garb and puts a patch over his eye. They sit outside a mosque and beg. A child earns far more begging than a grown woman ever could. And a handicapped child, even more.
We also met Jennifer’s mom, a twenty-three year old woman with long, braided hair.
“Where did you get your punjabi?” she asked Genae, shyly hiding her face behind her pale pink dupata (scarf). “It is so pretty. Did you get a good price for it?”
It was so clear in that moment that these women and I are not so different. And although young, they were (are) mothers, with dreams for their children. Do they still have dreams for themselves?
For the next couple of hours, we stayed with the women in that top room, singing songs and sharing from our own lives. Carolyn told about when she was suicidal and only found hope in Jesus. Elisa spoke of personal value that comes from the Creator and doesn’t change no matter what a person does….or what is done to that person.
The afternoon grew long and it would soon be time for the women to return to work. We gave them each a small gift – some sweet smelling soap and lotion, and some cookies. And before we left, we prayed with them. They asked for prayer for their own mothers, their children living in cities far away, and for themselves – that they could be right before God.
“See you soon,” a petite woman with large, lined eyes said to me. She reached to hug me, and pulled my cheek to hers. She kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hand in hers.
It was both hard to leave–and a relief to be free.
We emerged from the darkened staircase, blinking in the bright afternoon light. I turned to get one final look at the place and noticed the vending machine on the wall. A condom vending machine plastered with the slogan, “All the fun, none of the fear.”
We walked back to the parking garage, through the streets teeming with men of all ages. I felt like I had left something behind and kept looking around me, checking my bag, my pockets. It wasn’t until we arrived at our van that I realized what I had left: my heart.