Being a Social Worker In Mumbai’s Red Light Area

Over 20,000 sex workers cramped in a 14 lane nightmare: this is what the Kamathipura brothel – which has been in existence for the past 150 years – looks like. The general public – sometimes understandably – has an aversion towards red-light areas (RLAs) such as these, forgetting that underneath the sex and business, children and women live an unimaginable life of misery.

I am a social worker at Oasis India’s Kamathipura Hub. My day begins with a walk around the area where I meet women. Women just like you and me but with a stinging past that brought them here. Starting from rapport building to helping them move out of the RLA, we slowly work to empower them to not only make the decision to leave, but also to become self-sustainable. Although this is a long emotional and mentally draining process, many women have successfully left the trade. They live among us. Happily.  

When we initially start working with a sex worker- we face an established pattern. First they lie. Avoid eye contact. Eventually they open up, call us ‘didi’ (sister) and get attached to us like family. When we personally get to know these women, it is hard to digest that they were lied to, kidnapped and forced into sex work.

What is life as a sex worker like? From my experience of working with them, here are some issues that they face every day.

Abuse and controlled by pimps and brothel owners

Women do not talk freely to social workers or NGO staff since they are under brothel owners and pimps who control their every move. New workers have to get permission to even step out of the brothel. Women are often verbally and physically abused when they try to seek help. Some young girls born to sex workers have not even seen the world outside. Therefore they do not truly understand that there is life beyond.

Poverty

Young sex workers are predominantly from villages in Maharashtra, made to believe that they will be given a job or an acting role in Bollywood. They all leave their homes behind, desiring for a better life and to escape the horrendous poverty they are faced with every day. But they feel deceived when they discover that poverty is at its epitome in the RLA. They live in dingy rooms with no financial freedom and more often under debt to either the pimp or the brothel owner.

Hygiene and health issues

The surroundings that women live in are unimaginable. They suffer from sexually transmitted diseases as well as serious mental health issues. Pimps force them to take in customers. They are not provided with proper food, suffering from prolonged illness and malnourished.

Addiction

Majority of sex workers are addicted to alcohol, tobacco, drugs and smoking because they believe that it helps them forget their suffering and pain. Some even die due to the addiction.

The above are only some of the struggles that the women face, all the while suffering in silence. At Oasis, it is our goal to give them a voice.

We help sex workers with:

– Referrals to other NGOs for residential and financial needs
– Helping their children find hostels through the Child Welfare Committee
– Liaising with NGOs to advocate for domestic violence cases
– Home investigations
– Job placements
– Medical assistance
– Life skills
– Vocational training
– Livelihood training

Rina, a sex worker from Kamathipura left her past behind and moved in with her second husband in hopes of finding a brand new beginning. But in a few months, she found out that her husband gambles away all his money. He also physically and verbally abused her. Rina escaped from that dangerous situation, came back to Mumbai and sought the help of Oasis. Working with thousands of women in similar situations, we referred her to a partner NGO to file a domestic violence case in court. Our aim is to help Rina join the tailoring course and become self-sustainable within 12 months.

In the past 12 years, Oasis India has assisted 1224 trafficked women and children back to wholeness. We have also reintegrated 679 victims of trafficking or those abandoned – back with their families.

Sheela Bhalerao
Social Worker, Kamathipura Hub

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