Slavery in Mumbai

The girls stand motionless on the pavement, dressed modestly in the shalwar kameez – tunic and trousers – and dupatta scarf worn by most women in Mumbai. They are very young and their eyes are lifeless. Above the shops, other girls look out of barred windows…

More stories from the slums of India can be found in the book, 'Finding Oasis'...

The motorbike I am riding pillion on comes to a sudden halt. Moses, the driver and one of the outreach workers for Oasis India’s ‘Aruna’ project (the name means ‘bright morning sun’), calls out to a woman with a little girl. The woman’s face lights up as she recognises him. The child stares at him with hostility as he approaches her mother.

Moses speaks to the mother in Marathi and gives her a slip of paper with the phone number of Aruna drop-in centre. She smiles and waves as he gets back on the motorbike but the child’s face doesn’t relax till she sees him ride off.

It’s a miracle that any of these women manage to trust the Oasis staff. Last time they trusted someone they were sold into prostitution for a price they had to repay, over months of relentless abuse.

Organized crime prefers people-trading to drug-trafficking now. Drugs can only be sold once. Girls can be sold to a brothel then kidnapped by pimps and sold again and again, part of a global slave trade more thriving and numerous than the one ended by William Wilberforce and others in 1833.

Local church members support Oasis by prayer-sponsoring a girl or by monthly 24-hour prayer vigils. Manju, the staff member who interprets for me at the drop-in, says it’s usually after a vigil that closed doors open: a brothel madam agrees to let the girls go for health checks or a girl leaves the trade, accepting a place in Oasis’ halfway house where she can receive counselling, education and training - or if needed, a place at Oasis’ home for women and children with HIV/AIDS.

At the drop-in centre Manju, who is in her twenties and married with a young baby introduces me to Haneefa, an older woman whose only home is the brothel now, after being widowed and sold to traffickers by her friend’s husband.

After talking to her for a while, two young women come in - Sharmila and Esha who work in the brothel next door. Both were trafficked from rural areas of India with regional languages which are not spoken in Mumbai; they are effectively foreigners here. They have recently started to come to the centre to learn to read and write Hindi.

I ask them if they’ll take the risk of telling me about their lives; I know they fear people may judge them – they both nod their heads vigorously at this – but I hope if I write their stories people may think, ‘But that could be me!’

They both look away, then Esha turns to Manju and says, ‘I’ll talk to her.’

She tells her story impassively. She came to Mumbai from Assam in 2001 with two friends, at the invitation of a lady who befriended them and offered a week’s sightseeing holiday. Esha, shattered after a violent marriage, was delighted.

‘The first evening in the hotel, the lady bought us cold drinks but she had put drugs in them. A man came in the night and abused me. Next day the lady and a man came to see me. I had to stand in front of them while they looked at me and discussed.’

The traffickers agreed on Esha’s price - 40,000 rupees (about £500). ‘This is counted as a debt that the girl has to pay. In the brothel the girl gets half what she earns and the madam gets the other half.’

It would take Esha five months to pay off the debt but after five years she is still in the trade. The bonds of slavery are invisible, but tight.

‘I was alone,’ Esha continues. ‘I was taken to another place and the lady told me I would have to stay there. I couldn’t understand their language. I couldn’t understand what was happening and I didn’t know where my friends were.’

Finally Esha met one of her friends in the hospital and she came to Esha’s brothel. ‘But then she ran away and the madam said I would have to pay off her debts as well.’

I want to ask what those first five months did to her to take the light out of her eyes and cause her, a naturally lively girl, to sit hunched up on the floor talking
hopelessly about going home next year, not responding to Manju’s impassioned offer of help to escape the trade now.

Can I ask Esha about her life without upsetting her?

Manju asks for me and Esha says immediately, ‘I don’t go to sleep till four a.m. I work all night, every night. Then I drink and I sleep. I am very depressed.’

‘Do you have the right to refuse clients who seem dangerous?’

Sharmila, who has stayed silent up till now, speaks up. ‘At the beginning I used to say no, but it was forced on me so I don’t say no any more.’

‘We are used to it,’ Esha says.

It’s the saddest statement of her story so far.

Esha stands up abruptly and says she is going. ‘Come,’ she tells Sharmila, but Sharmila stays. She tells Manju she wants to talk to me too but her story is long.

‘Tell her I’m here for another week and I’m listening.’

Sharmila laughs and says, ‘It’s not that long!’

Manju has some trouble understanding her accent; Sharmila is from Calcutta and speaks Bangla. She has a six-year old daughter from her marriage to a man who was hospitalized long-term far from home after an injury, soon after the baby was born. Sharmila worked hard on their farm but poverty forced her to sell the animals then the land, and a ‘friend’ in Mumbai offered help.

‘She said, “I will give you some housework and you can do a beautician’s course.” I said no, because of my baby, and the lady said, “You can bring your baby.” So I came with my baby and stayed at first in a place I thought was a hotel, but there was a lot of noise in the night and when I woke up in the morning everyone was sleeping, and then I understood what kind of a place it was.’

A young girl rushes in, very nervous and fidgety, and asks Manju who I am. When Manju says I am here to write about Oasis India’s work, she sits down and begs to tell her story. Sharmila agrees to let her go first, and the words tumble out of her.

Like Haneefa, Esha and Sharmila, Anjali was vulnerable – abandoned by her husband for her inability to conceive. Two months after he left her she discovered she was five months pregnant but he refused to acknowledge the child as his. Anjali worked but the money she saved was used by her mother for her younger brother and sister, and when her mother died she was evicted from the family home.

‘A lady offered me work in her house. She gave me money and said if I did what she told me I would get back my home. She told me to put my baby into the government hostel [care home] and took me to Mumbai.’

She speaks very quickly here, becoming breathless. ‘She sold me for 50,000 rupees and then she went. After one year, I paid my debt but I am supporting my brother and sister so I am still here.’

Without pausing she asks if I am going anywhere else in India. When I say Bangalore, she says, ‘You must go to the hostel! Please go! There are hundreds of young girls. They are just left there!’

Manju knows about the hostel. Oasis is now working with local authorities in the overwhelming task of caring for girls aged eight to 18 picked up by the police in Bangalore, a centre for human trafficking and child labour.

A first step was to set up a nationwide database for tracing missing women and children. The early experience in Bangalore was a catalyst for the Stop The Traffik campaign in co-operation with other charities. Recently, Oasis has set up SACMEP (South Asia Centre for Missing and Exploited Persons) to monitor vulnerable communities and known trafficking routes, to locate missing girls before they are sold on.

The sex workers’ own children are highly at risk too. Living in the brothel, they sleep under their mothers’ beds and hear them being abused, and they are often abused too. Oasis works closely with the Salvation Army, which runs a night shelter for them near to Aruna.

Anjali and the girls she is pleading for now are a reminder that stopping the trafficking cannot end with removing victims from their abusers. Rescued children have been kidnapped from understaffed state hostels and retrafficked; some were sold or abandoned by their families in the first place and many are never reclaimed, while many become sick from AIDS or TB or infections that spread like wildfire through the overcrowded hostels, brothels and factories. Anjali herself, with her tragic eyes and constant restlessness, is an image of the unseen wounds of slavery.

When Anjali leaves, Sharmila waits to be invited to resume her own narrative.

Her story, unlike the others’, has glimmers of hope. Sharmila’s husband reported her missing and her child, who had been taken from her, was found and returned. The police arrested the traffickers and they were sentenced to three months in jail – a light enough sentence for sentencing a young mother to be raped every night and kidnapping her baby – but they bribed their way out of it.

Sharmila returned to her village – but everyone shunned her and her mother and little girl because of where she had been, and the only work was poorly paid.

‘There wasn’t enough for food and clothes and I had to take care of my child. So I told my mother, “I’ll go back and make some money for us,” and my mother was crying.’

She came back to Mumbai, to the only people who wouldn’t reject her and the only work anyone would give an uneducated girl who spoke Hindi with a Bangla accent and couldn’t produce a reference from any employer.

Sharmila has tried for years to pay off her ‘debt’ (she was sold for a very high price because she is pretty) and to build a life for her daughter before the child finds out what her mother does. People she has trusted have robbed and left her, including her husband finally.

She has done all she can to save herself, bar accepting the lifeline held out by Oasis. I wonder how hard it is for Hindu girls, raised on the doctrine of karma – literally, ‘deeds’ – to believe in a God who pays off their debts for free.

As evening comes and the centre is about to close I ask how I can pray for her when I leave here. ‘How do you feel about your life?’

Sharmila’s answer is vehement: ‘I don’t like to do this dirty work!’

I ask, as she’s tried so hard to put things right, if it isn’t time to receive, to let people help? She starts to cry, clenching her fists in an effort to stop.

Haneefa and another woman are still here and join Manju and me as we pray for Sharmila. After the prayer, she sits very still. Then she hugs us and goes back across the street to the brothel.

It’s such a short step away. And such a long journey to make, in the other direction.

First published in the Baptist Times, 2008

More information about the work of Oasis India is available at