Kamathipura: Hope in the darkness


Mumbai. ‘The city of dreams’. The great beating heart of the Indian subcontinent that daily absorbs a new wave of immigrants seeking a brighter future. The city skyline has reflected Mumbai’s growth and the towering skyscrapers seen from the Bandra-Worli sea link bridge (built at a cost of $240 million in 2010) are rapidly echoing Manhattan or Hong Kong. This is a mega city bursting out of its former colonial seams with a bang and containing some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

Right in the traditional centre of this metropolis is a maze of streets that tell of a darker side. Kamathipura, spread over five ‘lanes’, looks at first glance to be another typical impoverished and lively Mumbai neighbourhood. But it is, in fact, Asia’s second largest red light district, infamous as a murky hub of human trafficking and sex slavery. To walk through these lanes at dusk is to experience another world.

A smorgasbord of women and girls, from Nepali to South Indian, cluster on the streets, heavily made up, in flashing saris or tight blue jeans, united in their inscrutable expression and jaded stare. Cameras are not welcome here and a foreign visitor is eyed with both mistrust and disdain. Children and puppies play at the feet of the waiting women, like everywhere in India, life in all its raw beauty is lived on the street and there is little hidden away. Except that is for the new arrivals, freshly trafficked victims as young as eight years old who are brought with muffled screams from a passing taxi and locked into a steel cage for weeks or months until they are considered ‘broken’ enough to release with rape, starvation and beatings being the normal treatment. This is the silent story of Kamathipura. They are silenced victims.


A window in the Kamathipura red-light district of Mumbai. (Courtesy: Flickr/geigerwe)

First created in the 18th century with the construction of various causeways that connected the seven islands of Mumbai, Kamathipura got its name from the Kamathis (workers) of Andhra Pradesh who populated the area. In the late 19th century at the zenith of the British Raj, it was transformed into a “comfort zone” for the British military. Large bungalows were erected to house thousands of imported prostitutes consisting mainly of European and Japanese women with the most exclusive lane being monikored ‘Safed Gully’ or ‘white street’.

The British soldiers have long gone but the legacy remains. Today this small area is estimated to hold between 10 and 20,000 sex workers, the vast majority of whom have been tricked and sold into sex slavery. One writer poignantly described the women as ‘human weather vanes of loneliness’. Many authors and commentators have wandered these frenetic lanes over the last 200 years, the famed Pakistani author Manto was a frequent visitor in the 1940’s and wrote several short stories about the area observing, ‘A man remains a man no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance, from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore. She is viewed with lust and contempt. Society closes on her doors it leaves ajar for a man stained by the same ink. If both are equal, why are our barbs reserved for the woman?’

More recently, London-based photo-journalist Hazel Thompson wrote an e-book ‘Taken’ which powerfully documents the daily horror of being forced to work in brothels where an estimated 70 % of sex workers are HIV positive. ‘This is not a place of pleasure but of pain’ reflects Thompson, who has spent 11 years visiting the area and gaining unprecedented access to the inside world of Kamathipura after reading a story about a nine-month-old baby girl being sold to a Madam for the equivalent of £150.

‘Taken is inspired by my encounter with Guddi, a 22-year-old sex worker, who was lured by the promise of maid work and was raped so brutally at the age of 11 that she was hospitalised for three months. Then brought back again for it to start all over again. After years of forced service to the brothel and beatings, she approached the police, only to be put in jail and then bought back by the Madam. Her life and the life of all these girls is a nightmare cycle of despair and fear. My ambition is that Taken, showing the reality of a red-light district in all its dangerous and sordid dimensions, will inspire people to help put an end to this modern-day slavery. I hope I have provided a platform that can give these voiceless victims a voice.’

According to Thompson, there are roughly 25 people involved in each trafficking including watchers, minders, police, even security guards on roofs, creating a web of protection and collaboration. The police station placed in the heart of the area is a hub of bribery and the police themselves will warn brothel owners of an upcoming raid so that the minors held captive can be hidden away in advance.

Apne Aap Womens Collective group.

In the midst of the red light district, there are organisations working to aid and bring hope to the sex worker community. One such is Apne Aap Womens Collective, which has, since it’s founding in 1998, helped 3,000 women and children. To step behind the modest door of the NGO, ‘Apne Aap’ sandwiched between two shops at the heart of Kamathipura is to find an oasis of hope and compassion.

Program manager, Pranjali Das explains: ‘The brothel-based mothers are working all night and sleeping much of the day so the children are essentially left alone. We saw a need for them to be taken in and cared for but also an opportunity to begin to teach them about the world outside the brothels from an early age and bring a chink of light into the cycle with all the shame, violence and aggression it engenders’. Around 80 children are daily cared for at the centre and education is arranged with the collective splitting the school fees with the mother, A system that, Pranjali comments ‘allows the mother to be invested in their child’s education and feel their money is going into their future’.

Over the years, Apne Aap has created a complete structure to serve the children of the sex workers from arriving at two years old to graduating from university or vocational training with an impressive 100 percent success rate to date in providing girls with benefits such as counselling, alternative career options and the hope of escape from the brothel community. One alumni of Apne Aap, Shweta Katti now studies at New York’s Bard College and was named in Newsweek ’s list of “25 Young Women to Watch” (aged under-25), alongside Pakistani schoolgirl and activist Malala Yousufzai.

Organisations such as Apne Aap, alongside others like the award winning Sangharima Collective and Bombay Teen Challenge, are fighting back against what seems like an impossibly corrupt and impenetrable cycle. Hazel Thompson observed in her keynote speech for the Thomson Reuters Foundation ‘I have always wanted to ask the men that visit these brothels, do they realise they are not paying for sex with a willing prostitute but with a slave’. To revisit the powerful words of Manto, this is an area that ‘from top to bottom, is all about deception. What better place could there be for a person who wants to deceive himself?’. Hope has a habit of emerging from the least likely places and Kamathipura is seeing glimmers from the ground up.


About Author

Cosmo Brockway

Cosmo Brockway is a freelance lifestyle and travel writer and editor, currently based between London and India. He recently co-edited the official magazine for VisitBritain in partnership with No.10 Downing St. His interests include architecture, Indian history and Islamic art.

1 Comment

  1. Zoë Trevelyan on

    Excellent and vivid imagery brings this heart -breaking way of life to one’s attention and makes me long to be able to do something or anything to change at least one child’s life. Horrifying to know it exists in a semi official way. Continue to write articles which touch our hearts!

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