The Normal of Dark and Bright
Looking for light in one of the darkest places in India
I tried to adjust my eyes but could see only darkness. “It’s at the top of the stairs,” our guide said. “Don’t touch the handrail!”
There was almost no light where the stairway ended. A dark hallway trailed back to the left. As the police captain fumbled with his keys, I noticed a half-open door behind him; men sitting on the floor inside were assembling things.
Once unlocked, a heavy metal gate swung aside and an inner door opened; we walked into a pitch-black and stifling hot room. How long since anyone was here? Months? Maybe longer. The place had been closed and seized as evidence two years ago.
Before that it was a brothel.
The International Justice Mission (IJM) is a global team of hundreds of lawyers, investigators and social workers that strives to protect the poor from violence in the developing world. When an opportunity came to join a group observing their work in India, I jumped at the chance.
Akshara* is an IJM social worker who has assisted in dozens of raids of brothels to rescue underage girls. She has the countenance of a streetwise mom in a tough neighborhood: gentle whenever possible, tough as nails whenever necessary. Lit from every corner by smartphone flashlights, she told us the story of the place.
Mumbai has the largest red light district in Asia, dating back to British colonial rule. Brothels in the area typically operate from 11 a.m. until 3 a.m. The girls live where they work, grabbing a few hours of sleep at night, eating when they can, in between the 11 or so customers they see each day. That’s an average; in some cases, it can be 20 or more customers per day for a single girl. Customers pay on average $3–$4 per 15-minute visit.
The women who are there voluntarily have much the same experience as the underage sex slaves. On the lowest rungs of the sex trade ladder in Mumbai, neither group is paid more than room and board for their work. “Take-home pay” is nonexistent; neither is the home to which it might have been taken.
We walked through the place. Bosses in the foyer would collect funds and allow the customer to select a partner. Condoms were sold there—more often not sold, since they were not required. The foyer emptied into a living room-sized main area. The place had been roughed up, maybe in the raid, maybe later, but it was easy to imagine five cots arrayed around the room, separated by thin curtains.
A makeshift staircase in the corner of the main room called to mind stairs on a submarine, leading to a loft with four or five tiny private rooms, each without a door. I forgot to ask why some girls got the upstairs rooms. Whatever the reason, the privacy did not upgrade the decor, limited to a cot next to a small table in a room barely larger than the bed. Dingy translucent blocks built into the walls hinted at a world outside without showing any of it. The downstairs girls didn’t even get that.
We were given unexpected permission to take pictures. I noticed a flurry of activity at the far side of the loft. Members of our group were clustered around the bottom of a platform built to support huge water storage tanks. The platform looked solid, but some tiles in its corner revealed a hidden passage. Whenever the police showed up, the girls were forced into the hiding place: dark, hot, with just enough space to conceal them from discovery.
From rescued to rescuer
Five or so years ago, Sani* dropped out of school to help support her family in South India. Working at a garment factory in Bangalore, she heard of a man who could connect her with a better-paying job in the northern part of the country. She arranged a meeting with the man, but the meeting was a trick; the man drugged her tea. She woke up the following day in a brothel in Mumbai, trapped hundreds of miles from home with no way to escape.
Over the next three years she was traded from brothel to brothel, including the one we were visiting. Sani tried several times to escape the brutal rule of her captors. All of her attempts failed. Yet one night in February 2013, she was rescued in a raid by Mumbai police, assisted by IJM investigators.
In a city of 22 million people, the police simply don’t have the time to do in-depth investigations on brothels, many of which fall through. Later in the process, without a solid case, a well-funded defense team might outmatch prosecutors. IJM operates to serve both ends of the process, having worked for years to build trust with police, prosecutors and judges throughout the system to assure both arrests and convictions. The approach has also worked elsewhere, yielding massive reductions in underage sex trafficking in Cambodia and parts of the Philippines, as well as significant disruptions in labor bondage elsewhere in India.
Later in our visit we would meet the small team of IJM investigators, whom we could not photograph, name or even describe specifically. Their work is undercover and in disguise, posing as customers in the network of brothels in Mumbai. Each wears a hidden camera that records every moment of the visit. Once alone, they talk quietly without ever touching the girl—asking questions to identify any underage girls in the place but without giving a hint of their true mission. Once underage trafficked girls are identified, the place is watched by IJM, slowly building a case to take to the police, strong enough to justify a raid and, ultimately, a conviction in court. Investigations can last from hours to months. Once the case is strong enough, it is presented to the police.
At her rescue, Sani was terrified. The girls almost always are. Their bosses tell them that they will be sent to jail, too, if the place is raided. Social workers from IJM will stay with them, assisting them in the traumatic hours and days after their rescue. They place rescued girls within a secret network of homes designed to slowly help them recover from the world of trafficking and begin to build a much different life.
After two months in the recovery program, Sani shared with an IJM social worker that she could identify the location of another brothel—the one I later visited. She followed police in, on the night of the raid, and identified the hiding place, convincing the girls to come out. “I was once here, too,” she told them. “Don’t be afraid. I am here to rescue you.” Half a dozen girls were rescued that night two years ago.
On the bus leading away from our encounter with the brothel, our group was stone silent. I was thinking of my 11-year-old granddaughter, the sweetest thing in the world. I don’t want her to even hear about a place like this. The idea of her actually living through it is unimaginable.
I thought for a while about what I had been doing in my own life at that age and in the youthful years that followed. Life back then was bright and limitless. School was mostly fun. I took pictures of anything and anyone that would allow it. On Sundays I went to church, where I learned that there was a special plan for my life, and if I found it and followed it, the world would be OK.
That was normal.
Decades later on the other side of the world, I discovered another kind of normal. I discovered that the elevator of human evil may not have a bottom floor. Just when you think you have uncovered the depth of human exploitation, there is something worse further down. For those trapped in the horror, and in the lies that got them there, normal life becomes years or decades ensnared in sexual slavery.
The day after our visit to the brothel, the IJM people briefed us on the numbers for sex trafficking. In India, sex slaves are sold for an average of $660. Each costs a brothel owner about $4,863 per year (mostly for food) but produces an average of $11,942 in revenue, yielding a 71-percent profit margin that would be the envy of almost any business.
Further, the brothel enterprise in Mumbai is diversifying. First, it is decentralizing—moving away from fixed locations and into places like hotels. That makes it harder for IJM to build a case and for the police to catch the bad guys. Second, sex traders are branching out, forming alliances and breaking into the trafficking of illegal drugs and weapons. It seems the industrialization of evil in Mumbai is proceeding along predictable lines.
Light and color
My work as a photojournalist has brought me into the presence of extreme poverty on four continents. I’m not that easy to shock. On each trip I’m reminded that poverty has a face, and that each person is someone with whom I share a common humanity (and often much more). Much to some friends’ surprise, my encounters with those living in poverty have almost always been enjoyable, after a fashion.
Not this time.
I could not bring myself to imagine faces. For me, the girls were line items in some terrible ledger of the suffering of innocents. The darkness and heavy air of that closed brothel was all that I had. I came to realize that it was all I wanted. I didn’t want these girls to be real.
The next day they became real for me. Our bus took us an hour or so out of town to one of the recovery homes for girls rescued from sex trafficking. The home was colorful—typical of the neighborhood—and dappled with afternoon light. The function and location of these homes are confidential and are sponsored by various care organizations; ours was a Catholic home. Girls live there for at least two years after their rescue, often many years longer, depending on specific needs. Tutors provide accelerated education and IJM caseworkers meet with each rescued girl monthly.
Early in our 90-minute visit, we stood around in a giant circle and played goofy games. I was no better at bouncing a balloon off my head than I expected to be. Yet it was a joy to be in a room echoing with giggles and laughter. Later, we had the opportunity to buy some of the crafts these girls had made. Each of my three daughters now has a handmade necklace. My 11-year-old granddaughter loves the bracelet I gave her. I did not tell her much, just that it was made by a girl about her age in India.
The process of recovery is an agonizingly slow one. The brief bit of childhood we witnessed is a far cry from the childhood each girl deserved. But it was a step in a long road to recovery.
Sani is still in a place like this home, her life nourished through the aftercare she continues to receive. She dreams today of becoming a nurse—or perhaps a social worker.
As we were leaving, every member of our group was given a painting in the Warli tradition—a tribal art style typical of coastal India. Each was painted by a survivor of sex trafficking who had been in the home. Learning this style gave the girls both a creative outlet and a skill with marketplace value. My painting portrays human figures under a tree—white silhouettes against a rich red background. Some figures are playing music, other dancing to it, some as they are engaging in work and harvest. Joy itself.
I realized I was wrong about a few things.
What these girls went through was not normal and never can be. “Normal” refers to a preexisting standard. Even if the whole human race were engaged in sex trafficking, it would still be an intolerable moral outrage. As cancer tumors grow toward metastasis, they never become “normal” cells, no matter how much of the host they seize.
I never heard any of this back at the First Church of Youthful Optimism. More likely, I just didn’t have ears to hear. Forty years on, I still believe in that “plan” for my life. But I now realize that the plan involves warfare.
Almost no one chooses to live in times of war. The times choose us. But some of us can choose roles: soldier, spy, collaborator, bystander. The people of IJM and the police and prosecutors in Mumbai have chosen to be soldiers.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.