Sold to a brothel as a child, sex worker transforms community through resilience and solidarity

The greatest deception of my life was to make each client feel singularly important. I worked, but my meager earnings went straight to Tia. Still a child, when I cried to leave, Tia reminded me I owed her a debt for buying me.

  • 6 months ago
  • January 12, 2024
7 min read
Zareena Shaikh, a former sex worker, now spearheads essential sanitation projects, uplifting her community in Mumbai. | Photo courtesy of Zareena Shaikh Zareena Shaikh, a former sex worker, now spearheads essential sanitation projects, uplifting her community in Mumbai. | Photo courtesy of Zareena Shaikh
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Zareena Shaikh is a dedicated social advocate and community worker in Himachal Pradesh. She is a former sex worker and has transformed these experiences into a driving force for positive change. As a mother of four, Zareena collaborates with a local NGO Kranti, focusing her efforts on the empowerment and betterment of individuals in marginalized professions. She was sold to a brothel as a child and began sex work at the age of 11.
background information
Mumbai’s Kamathipura district, known as one of Asia’s largest red-light areas, has become a focus for humanitarian and social work as many young girls are trafficked from neighboring areas like Nepal and Bangladesh. This locality has captured the interest of both national and international filmmakers and authors, who have explored its unique social dynamics in their works. Numerous NGOs are actively engaged in the district, working tirelessly to improve the living conditions and prospects of those in vulnerable situations, offering support, education, and empowerment programs.

MUMBAI, India — At the tender age of nine, my family sold me to a brothel, marking the start of my life as a sex worker. One day, my adopted father took me on a train ride. I felt excited, having never been on a train before. In two days, we arrived in Mumbai, the city of dreams. Traversing the narrow lanes crowded with women, we entered a small gate leading to a space crammed with tiny rooms.

It felt like more of a corridor than a living space. I stood in the courtyard watching two girls engaged in a spirited spitting contest. Other women sat on the floor, chewing and chatting. I felt out of place and overwhelmed. An hour later, Tia, a majestic figure dressed in a red sari with gold trim, entered the hall, cigarette in hand.

As the head of the brothel, she had a dignified presence, mixed with feminine and masculine qualities. When Tia entered, the chatting in the hall ceased and she carefully examined me. As I realized what was happening, my world turned upside down. Feelings of bewilderment and discomfort soon turned into a sense of deep betrayal and loss.

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At seven years old, I joined the circus and never saw my mother again

Growing up, I witnessed the stark religious divides in India and the struggles faced by minorities. My biological mother often faced social rejection for her interfaith marriage. After a decade married to my mom, living in Andhra Pradesh, my father left us for another woman. He wanted a son to carry on his family name and I became a burden.

His departure forced my enrollment in a public school for the second grade, but the relentless bullying I faced for being fatherless compelled me to quit. When my mother began taking me with her to work, the employers complained, and she lost her job. At home, she lashed out at me.

On September 30, 1981, at the age of seven, I left home, headed for Mumbai. Lost and unsure how to find transportation, I shared my dancing ability with a man from the circus and he offered me a job. At the circus, life almost felt good. I danced with clowns, often serving as the butt of jokes, and the humor masked my pain. Unexpectedly, I found what I never had at home, a family. At the circus, people took care of one another. I never saw my mother again.  

Yet, destiny had other plans for me. One day, a woman in the audience saw me dancing and surprisingly offered to adopt me. She promised the circus owner to care for me, provide an education, and pay for my airplane tickets. I hid behind the curtain crying, but the circus owner urged me to leave. I followed the woman to Chennai and lived with her for a year. She sent me to school and gave me new clothes. I even celebrated a birthday.

After my first period at the age of 11, I was forced to take my first sex client

The day my adopted father took me on the train to Mumbai and left me, a sad sense of longing set in. I missed my biological mother, my circus family, and my adopted mom. It took time to understand they sold me to a brothel. Watching the other girls, I realized they too endured trauma. They knew my pain all too well.

I tried to escape Kamathipura, one of Asia’s largest red-light districts, but my efforts proved futile. Each attempt to flee led me straight back to the same crowded alleyways. Desperate, I sought help from the male clients, but they betrayed me to Tai. Several beatings left me unconscious, yet I never stopped seeking a way out.

Finally, at the age of 11, after experiencing my first menstrual cycle, Tia forced me to take on my first client. Wearing makeup and dressed in a pink and green traditional Lehenga [an ankle-length skirt], I stood at the doorway. That first act was excruciatingly painful. My heart pounded in horror, and I cried for help, but again, Tia silenced me. In that moment, I knew no one would save me.

In time, I changed my name from Zareena to Shabnam, but in reality, sex workers remained nameless in a society that rejected them. We had no rights, no identification, and the children of sex workers did not attend school. Customers called me whatever they wanted – Rani (Queen), Kali (Black), or Chhamiya (Coquette). By naming me, they viewed me as theirs. The greatest deception of my life was to make each client feel singularly important. I worked, but my meager earnings went straight to Tia. Still a child, when I cried to leave, Tia reminded me I owed her a debt for buying me.

I returned to sex work after having four children, but the NGO Kranti became my lifeline

My clients included laborers, ministers, police officers, and pillars of society. I thought I accepted my fate, but when I met a man named Ali, we connected to an NGO and I escaped, rescuing six others with me. Ali and I married and moved to a village in Andhra Pradesh. The first two years felt blissful, but when he pressured me for children and I failed to conceive, he became abusive.

When I finally became pregnant, my first daughter died of malnutrition at eight months old. Four more children followed, but Ali remained absent. I tried reconnecting with my biological parents to no avail, so I returned to Mumbai. A railway and a park became our home for four months. Sometimes, I left my children at a nearby temple, but the priest physically assaulted me.

Finally, the sex workers came to my rescue. They asked some men in the area to rent me a room and I began working in the sex trade. In the tiny space, I cooked on the bed and my children slept underneath it. We lived there for five long years. I dreamed of a different future for my daughters – a future full of education, careers, and healthy families.

Putting my earnings away, I vowed to finance their education. Although I kept working, I connected with the NGO Kranti and helped them reach out to other sex workers. They became a lifeline, and despite my hardships, I remained resilient, facing each day with courage and determination.

Daughter becomes first child of a sex worker to recieve a full scholarship to study abroad

Over the years, Kranti offered invaluable support, allowing my children and I to access educational opportunities and a better life. My eldest daughter left to study management in the United States, becoming the first child of a sex worker to receive a full scholarship to study abroad. Her success broke barriers and set a new precedent for children of sex workers.

My middle daughter traveled to Germany with full funding to take art therapy courses, and my youngest went to school in Ahmedabad. Each of my three girls work in big firms today. When my eldest left for America, I quit sex work and joined Kranti full-time to help other women. Today, I dedicate my life to impactful projects, helping sex workers in Mumbai and organizing community-building activities.

When I work with women, I avoid asking them to quit their jobs. Instead, I urge them to stay safe and use protection. Cases of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases remain high. I stand in the gap, providing support as they figure out their challenges. While sex workers can now hold identification cards, maintain bank accounts, and their children can attend school without an identified father, this still remain a neglected and shunned part of society.

While I live in Himachal Pradesh in Northern India now, I return to Mumbai often – my mission intertwining with the lives of local sex workers. In addition to transformative projects, we spend time together in joy and solidarity, weaving us together as a group. Unfortunately, human trafficking persists, with girls from Bangladesh and Nepal often sold for mere sums of 35,000 to 40,000 rupees ($400 to $450 USD). Witnessing these young girls experience the life of sex work, I empathize deeply with their suffering. I endeavor to rescue them, offering shelter at Kranti.

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