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Teen trafficked to India’s Red Light District, some sex workers as young as seven years old

He promised me a palace and a prince, but instead, he left me in one of Kolkata’s dirtiest brothels. He shattered my trust with his false assurances and never returned to fulfill his promise of taking me back.

  • 2 weeks ago
  • June 4, 2024
9 min read
Sonagachi in Kolkata, India in the red-light district with over 16,000 sex workers, some as young as seven. | Photo courtesy of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee Sonagachi in Kolkata, India in the red-light district with over 16,000 sex workers, some as young as seven. | Photo courtesy of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee
Masoom, a 16-year-old sex worker in Kolkata, India’s Sonagachi area was trafficked from its bordering country Bangladesh.
JOURNALIST’S NOTES
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Masoom, a 16-year-old sex worker in Kolkata, India’s Sonagachi area, was trafficked from Bangladesh, its bordering country. Masoom, who goes by the name Tuktuki, was brought to Sonagachi by a man who adopted her from a single mother in Bangladesh, promising to raise Masoom and arrange her marriage. Poor and unable to feed her other children, Masoom’s mother gave her daughter to the man, who sold her to a brothel owner when she was just nine. Masoom was then raised by the brothel owner for a year, and at the age of 11, she was introduced to her first client. Masoom calls Sonagachi her home and never plans to leave that place on her own due to the fear of being beaten or raped by the pimp.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Every year, between 20,000 and 50,000 women and children are trafficked from the neighbouring country, Bangladesh, to India. According to the Border Security Force, approximately 200,000 women have been trafficked from Bangladesh in the last ten years. A large number of these women are sent to Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India, which is also closest to the bordering country. Sonagachi, translated as “Golden Tree,” is home to several hundred multistory brothels built in the winding lanes. More than 17,000 sex workers live in Sonagachi, and thousands of sex workers rent a place on a per-customer basis.
Read more: Inside Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red light district with hundreds of brothels | Daily Mail Online

Trigger Warning: This story contains a graphic description of prostitution/sex work and may not be suitable for some readers.

KOLKATA, India — At nine years old, my father abandoned our home, leaving my mother to care for the three young children alone. In dire financial circumstances, a man appeared who felt like a ray of hope. This man, whom I referred to as “uncle,” lived in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The relative of our neighbor, my mother worked as a housemaid in their home. 

One day, the man visited our house and expressed his desire to adopt me. He promised to raise me well and provide an education. Although my mother initially hesitated, she eventually yielded to the circumstances. She believed sending me away might lead to a better life for me. After a month, the man formalized the adoption process and brought me to India. 

I remember this man promising me I would live in a palace and have a prince. Instead, he dumped me at one of Kolkata’s dirtiest brothels, shattering my trust. He never returned.

Read more stories from around the globe in the Sex & Gender category from Orato World Media.

From promise to betrayal: young girl’s journey to Kolkata’s brothel 

Many girls dream of their prince charming growing up, inspired by fairy tales. The idea of a desirable man caring for a woman ingrains itself in our collective consciousness, regardless of cultural background. However, these stories never mirrored my life experience. My mother never found her prince charming. Rather, she endured an abusive marriage. My father’s alcohol-fueled rage affected not only my mother but also my younger brothers and me. This pattern remained somewhat common in Bangladesh, where poverty and social norms contribute to violence against women. 

An unexpected turn took place when the man who promised me a better life adopted me and left me in Kolkata in a brothel. It was the filthiest place I had ever seen. Upon arriving at the brothel Khala, a stout woman greeted me. She bathed me, fed me, and gave me new clothes. I slept on a bed next to hers in her room. Her kindness stood out in this harsh environment. The other girls in the brothel treated me as a little sister, playing with me, applying makeup, painting my nails, and sharing hairpins.

Despite being 16 years old now, I tell people I am 20. Coming to the brothel, I took on a new identity as Tuktuki, a Hindu girl, even though I am Muslim. “Ma,” the lady pimp, is now my family. She feeds me, ensures I have festival clothes, and takes care of my wellbeing as long as I bring in money. However, it all comes with a condition—I have to work and earn my keep.

Failed escape ends in horror: girl raped by police 

When I first arrived at Khala the other girls made me feel safe, but only temporarily. After a year, everything changed. Ma applied makeup to my face and lined me up with 22 other girls. We stood there, waiting for the male clients to choose. At first, I did not comprehend the situation. I genuinely thought, “Perhaps they are selecting us to return home.” Reality soon hit hard.

This fat, ugly man chose me first, likely because I was the youngest. I entered a room with him and my confusion turned to horror. During the act, I fainted and when I regained consciousness hours later, I saw myself bleeding. The truth hit me as I realized I was a commodity, an object for their pleasure. I tried to escape, but they caught me. The pimp locked me in a dark room for a week and beat me with a thick wooden stick. They hit each part of my body every day for a week, ensuring they left no visible marks on my face, chest, thighs, or stomach as those would deter customers.

According to the Border Security Force in India, between 20,000 and 50,000 women and children are trafficked to India every year from the neighboring country of Bangladesh. | Photo courtesy of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

Despite the beatings, I persisted. One night, when the aunty was drunk and her brother was away, I fled. Running as fast as I could, I encountered a policeman. Desperation gripped me as I shared my story and pleaded for help. Instead, he and his friends raped me and returned me to Sonagachi. There, I found a new brothel and a new aunty. The police, once protectors, became my predators. My fear vanished and I felt I no longer had anything to lose.

Child trafficking in brothels: a disturbing preference for younger girls

I have lived in my current brothel for past six years. In this place, 24 girls share 10 rooms. Some girls visit just to chat during slow business hours. Aunty does not directly employ all of us. A few girls independently operate, renting rooms in Sonagachi for around 5,000 rupees ($60 USD) per month. Just two years ago, dramatic changes occurred. Our bustling clientele included up to 15 customers a day during peak hours. I charged 1,000 to 1,500 rupees ($11 – $17) per hour, while some high-category girls demanded up to 6,500 rupees ($77).

However, the COVID-19 Pandemic hit us hard, and we now operate on a fixed rate system: 500 rupees ($6) per client for one hour. Aunty (whom we affectionately call “Ma”) receives half of our earnings, and customers pay an additional 25 percent as a service charge. Clients from various walks of life visit us: college students, lawyers, married men, foreigners, and taxi drivers. Police raids sometimes disrupt our routine, but Aunty manages the situation by offering one of her best girls and paying off the authorities.

A delicate dance ensues, and everything hinges on that crucial one-hour interaction. Awareness has grown, shifting the landscape and changing our business. We do not passively wait in the brothel anymore; instead, we actively parade the streets from 11:00 a.m. onward, seeking potential clients. The competition is fierce. Traffickers procure girls as young as 7 years old now, filling up brothels. As older workers, we find ourselves pushed aside. When clients have to choose between a 16-year-old and a seven-year-old, they often choose the youngest. Disturbingly, these young girls do not insist on protection during intercourse.

Sonagachi brothels expose sex workers to health risks, drugs, and isolation 

Life in the brothels of Sonagachi is far from rosy. Despite various NGOs training us on HIV, AIDS, and sex workers’ rights, and teaching us to insist that clients wear condoms, the reality starkly differs. While many customers comply, some bribe the “Ma” with an extra 25 percent to bypass this. They prioritize their business interests over our health and well-being, and they do not permit us to attend HIV and AIDS check-ups at the camps.

A large number of trafficked women are sent to Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India. | Photo courtesy of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

Customers often arrive intoxicated or under the influence of substances like nicotine and heroin, compounding the risks. Their judgment and ability to consent to using protection remain impaired. I experienced this firsthand when a customer insisted that I take drugs with him. It made me ill and caused a significant loss of income, which I had to recoup the following day.

Furthermore, the brothel’s walls confine our existence, forbidding us from simple pleasures like watching movies in theaters. We find solace in rare events when a brothel owner screens a film on the street, highlighting the isolation and restrictions that define our lives.

Secret love: envisioning a better life for the future daughter 

Living in this place, I yearn to escape, but “Ma” keeps me here. Though she treats me well and does not torment me, I remain bound. Long ago, she promised to send me to Mumbai, but she never fulfilled that dream. I have chosen to stay; where else would I go? Society will forever label me a prostitute, denying me inclusion. The police violated me, eroding my trust in men. Even if I marry a prince, adorn myself in fine saris, reside in a grand palace, and ride in luxurious cars, the stigma will persist.

From my years in this brothel, I learned to find contentment with what I have. My mother sent me to that man intending my happiness, so I chose to be content. I cannot escape as I remember the beatings and rape. If this is my fate, so be it. Yet, once, I dreamed of becoming a nurse, caring for others. That dream remains unattainable.

There is one man who I consider my secret love. A taxi driver and regular customer, I think about marrying him someday. Because of my feelings, I do not charge him. He pays one quarter to Aunty. The girls caution me not to trust him; they assume he simply seeks cheap sex. Yet, if we married one day, I would go far away from this place. If I ever birthed a daughter, she would not be born in the brothel. I would educate her and give her a safe and respectable life. She would not live her life in obscurity like me.

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