Asha's RescueAsha’s Rescue How one girl escaped Bombay’s sex industry.
Asha’s mother was a prostitute who lived on 14th Street, deep in the heart of Bombay’s notorious red light district. She grew up in a cramped squalid room, virtually a cage, where her mother serviced between 10 and 25 customers a day.
This is the view from the brothel, it looks onto
another brothel across the road. © Hazel Thompson
© Danny Smith
Asha just after her mother died. © Jubilee
Most of the time, Asha, and her younger sister and brother, were forced to loiter in the street, but many nights she fell asleep curled up in a corner of the room, waiting for the last customer to leave.
When her mother died, there was almost no time for tears. The brothel owners moved a young Nepali girl into the cage and Asha and her young family were dumped onto the street outside the brothel where her mother had worked.
A make-shift canvas hut granted sanctuary from the scorching summer heat and the driving monsoon rain.
The young urchin family ate leftovers given them by friendly prostitutes, scrounged scraps from the rubbish dump and begged for paisa from passing trade. Their survival is a remarkable record of resilience amidst grinding despair and degradation.
The "brothelers" also kept a custodial eye on the girls, aware that, inevitably, the children of prostitutes always followed their parents into the sexual market.
The word on the street is that Asha’s father, a taxi driver whom she rarely sees, has been negotiating a deal with one of the "brothelers". Asha is a strikingly attractive girl and it’s said that he could sell her for £600. That’s a small fortune, equivalent to several years salary for him, money he just can’t refuse.
Deveraj, an Indian church worker, was my guide to Bombay as we journeyed down the back streets and alleys on a tour that I’m unlikely to forget.
We drove to the red light district as light was fading. The streets were crowded and dirty. A woman scavenges through rubbish that is piled up at least 15ft high, sprawling everywhere. A child runs across and kicks the garbage playfully. No one stares; no one’s surprised.
I could tell we were close, as girls with heavy make-up in brightly coloured saris lined the street corners in a silent parade.
14th Street snakes its way about one hundred yards down, a muddy road with narrow houses on the left, mud huts and make-shift shelters on the right. Ramshackle wooden buildings. Faces at windows. Hands outstretched from four stories high. On the street, girls with painted faces, brightly coloured bangles that jingle, jangle. The eyes look at you, wink enticingly but appear strangely dead.
Deveraj estimates that about 3,000 girls live on 14th Street and that the Kamatipura area is home to about 20,000 prostitutes. Bombay, with a population of 13 million, is said to have over 100,000 prostitutes.
The brothelers and prostitutes now called "commercial sex workers" know him by name after three years of working in the area. But to girls like Asha, he’s a friend, and possibly her only hope of ever leaving the street.
A Nepalese woman brothel owner complains about a recent police raid. "They took over a thousand girls from this areas, many of them were minors," she mutters. Some say, in all, over 6,000 girls were arrested.
"They pulled young kids from under the beds," an old prostitute with the dye half removed from her hair, confirms.
The brothelers in the community have been protesting, hatching plans. They’re outraged that the police could have played such a rule. It’s rumoured that the thriving sex industry continues with the connivance of the police authorities.
Speculation is that the police were seeking someone in particular. One girl caught in the raid is said to be the daughter of a police inspector. Others say that the clean-up is due to forthcoming elections. Brothelers are angry, said to be demonstrating, demanding the return of their girls.
Hands and elbows lean on the window ledges. Faces peer down. Everyone seems to know Deveraj. One girl in a purple sari with bright red lipstick walks across and tells Deveraj that she’s been ill for several days, complains of pain in her throat. Another woman pleads with him for help. She’s another painted lady, but older. There are many children in the area, skipping, kicking a tin can, oblivious to everything else around them.
THE GIRLS TELL THEIR STORY OF ABDUCTION AND ABUSE
Around the corner, in St. Anthony’s School, permission is granted to meet some of the girls rescued in the raid. We’re led down a corridor; stern police open the padlocked gate.
In the playground, a slender girl is dancing suggestively, her body swaying to the rhythm in her head. She races over to us and I’m astonished to see just how young she is. She flirts, winks, smiles, casual in her manner. Her name is Sharlinka.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"Fourteen?" It is more of a question than a statement.
She came from Andhra Pradesh and was told she would be given a job but was sold to a brothel owner. She thinks she’s been held captive for five years but isn’t sure.
"I had to work hard. The men were fat, old and smelly. I was forced to do some disgusting things. I wasn’t allowed out for 3 years."
Police stand by and listen to everything we say.
Within minutes, there are several girls around us. Most are young, pretty, several are Nepalese.
Another young girl with sad eyes tells us her story.
"I’m from Calcutta. I don’t have any relatives, only a mother, but I’m not sure where she is now. I drifted around and ended up in Bombay. I was caught one night by several men, they told me they’d find work for me and I’d have a good life but I was sold into slavery."
She has beautiful features but a sad expression. When asked her age she speculates, "I’m about 14 or 15, maybe even 16, but I don’t really know."
This girl says she doesn’t want to go back to the brothel. She looks worried. "What will happen to us. Is there anywhere for girls like us to go to? Is there anyone who wants us? Will they force us to go back to the brothel? I don’t have anyone in the world to go to, no one in the world to care for me. No one knows whether I live or die."
As we talk, she listens intently; her eyes widen in silent wonder. It’s as though she’s hearing about some extraordinary discovery or the plot of an intriguing film. She hangs on Deveraj’s every word. Tears form in her eyes. She bites her fingernails.
Anu is plump with large brown eyes that twinkle. She has a smooth skin and a playfulness about her presence.
"A woman came to our village and told my parents that she could find me work," she says quietly. "When I reached Bombay I was trapped. I didn’t want to stay but they wouldn’t let me leave the brothel. I’ve been her for two years."
Girls from Nepal walk by. Shawls covering their head, eyes downcast. They’re obviously teenagers.
DEBT BONDAGE AND SEXUAL SLAVERY
Girls are trafficked from Nepal by underworld gangs with police consent. They’re held in a slave market and brothelers visit the slave auction to buy the girls. From Bombay, some of the girls - and boys - find their way down to Goa, now India’s most popular tourist resort.
The girls sold to the brothels must work to pay off their debt. Customers pay the brothel and the girls survive on tips. This debt bondage keeps them in virtual slavery. The girls are held in appalling circumstances, beaten and abused, with little opportunity of ever being free from this vicious circle of slavery.
In many cases, the girls have no idea when their debt will be paid off - if ever - and they are resigned to a life of slavery and servitude.
Girls charge Rs 50 (£1) and Rs 250 (£5) and yes, everything is available. There are no limits to these sexual borders.
Bombay’s red light district has a heavy gang influence and there are many stories of shoot-outs and stabbings.
Suicides are spoken of factually. Very few get away. Anyone caught trying to escape will be beaten severely when they return. One of the girls talks about Mina who tried to jump out of a top floor window but fell and broke her back. She had been caged for 7 years forbidden to leave her room. Usually the girls are kept for 2 to 3 years before they’re allowed out on their own.
AIDS is a time bomb waiting to happen, an explosion predicted by statisticians that is destined to turn India into one of the major crisis capitals of the world.
Predictably it isn’t hard to find statistics. Twenty percent of Bombay’s commercial sex workers are thought to be under 18 and up to fifty per cent of these children are thought to be HIV positive.
To the girls themselves Aids isn’t such a threat. They have problems staying alive. Staying fed tonight. Tomorrow is twenty-four hours away.
"I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE BROTHEL"
We walk towards another group who are grouped around the swings in the playground. A tall Nepalese looking girl stares at us as we approach. "What are you doing here?" she says arrogantly.
She’s about 17, tough, and clearly an influence among the other girls. "The police grabbed us, beat us, we’re held here like criminals. Don’t ask us any questions. I want to go back to my friends, back to my house, I don’t care what people say. It was the only home I know. They’ll look after me, I know they will. Don’t try and talk us out of it. I hate it here."
The girls around her listen, some nod their heads in assent. "We had to work hard but they gave us food. What’s so wrong with what we were doing? We’re held here like prisoners. We might as well be dead."
Deveraj addresses her, but hopes his words will reach the others. "Speak for yourself," he insists, "but allow the others to decide which is the prison." He agrees that the authorities should have explained the purpose of the raid and given them information about their future. "Don’t become a slave. Think of what will happen when you’re older and no one wants your body. You’ll be thrown away like an old dress."
The girls from Nepal giggle. I try to communicate with hand signals. "How old are you?" I ask a slender girl wrapped in a blue shawl. The reply again, is a question. "16? 17?" One of the girls plays with the strap of my bag. Her eyes suggestive, alluring. Another girl scolds her. "Behave yourself". They giggle and slap each other playfully. It’s evident that they’re very young girls, and this is like a game to them.
Around the courtyard, girls are skipping, playing chase, a childhood game remembered. At the opposite end, five girls hang around by another padlocked gate. I’m told they are talking to the brothelers who came round regularly to sweet-talk them into returning. Whispered words to entice them back.
A policeman taps my shoulder. It’s time to leave.
THE CHILDREN OF PROSTITUTES CANNOT ESCAPE
Night has fallen and the back streets of Bombay are now full of girls. I peer through a narrow space between the buildings and discover that in fact it’s an alley, an active corridor leading deeper into the quicksand. A furtive glance reveals more girls, more verandahs, bright saris. Somewhere from the midst of the labyrinth, a baby cries, an old man sits staring into the distance. Life goes on.
"Have you seen Asha?" Deveraj asks a girl in purple trousers. The answer is negative. No one knows where she is. Finally, Deveraj spots her impish young brother roaming the street way past his bedtime. Asha, we’re told, has gone to sleep at a nearby school where floor space is provided for a few destitute children. Deveraj is pleased that she has taken his advice and gone to the temporary shelter voluntarily. "She’s safe for a few more hours. I don’t like her being in this area at night. It’s just not safe. Anything can happen."
Deveraj has developed a close relationship with Asha, her sister and brother, and many other abandoned children of prostitutes. Remarkably, several of the kids have developed a strong personal faith, consistently attend prayer and Bible studies, and frequently take part in a monthly church service that is held near 14th Street.
Many of the prostitutes wander in to the meeting and for that hour business in the red light district stops. For a few minutes, the girls can forget the life they live and lose themselves in songs of praise and prayers of hope.
Asha’s father has been seen talking with one of the brothel owners and there are rumours that a deal has been negotiated. Everyone knows that he could earn a fortune by selling his beautiful young daughter to the brothel.
Asha knows the risks and is determined that she won’t be sold into slavery. She speaks with a quiet confidence. "I don’t want to stay here. I want to leave. I feel dirty here. I’ll never forget this street but all the memories are bad. I don’t like the way the men look at me. Some men want me to join them. They say they’ll look after my family and me. I sense the danger. Every day it’s getting harder for me to live here. I know I can’t fight them forever. It’s a question of time. I want to leave here but I have nowhere to go. No one wants me except the brothelers."
We met six other girls who are also at risk. Two sisters, aged 13 and14, are looked after by a brotheler. But Deveraj suspects the motives behind her kindness. "Perhaps she thinks these girls will become dependent on her and she’s waiting for the right moment to introduce the sisters into the business," he tells me.
The daughters of prostitutes have all followed their mothers into the sex business in Bombay. Rarely has anyone ever escaped.
But Asha wants to turn her back on the past and leave her street of shame. She wants to wave goodbye forever to 14th Street.
Deveraj and I discuss plans to buy a house outside the city where orphaned and abandoned children of prostitutes could find sanctuary. It seems an insignificant gesture given the scale of the problem but if we can’t rescue Asha, it’s clear she will be condemned to a life sentence of sexual slavery.
If we’re unable to purchase a building, the doors of another house will open for Asha and her life will change forever. It’s a question of time.
THE CHILDREN WHOM LIFE FORGOT
I returned home scorched, and the experience haunted me day and night. I was determined to find the money to establish a home – quiet a lot of money for a small group like us. Remarkably, within a short space of time, the money was raised and the girls I’d met had been rescued. Soon more were able to come out. All the girls were orphaned or abandoned children from the red light district who had no way to escape from the sex slavery that had absorbed everything within reach. One time the news spread that a baby was being offered for sale for £150 in one of the brothels. Our team heard about the sale and Rev Deveraj raced to the area and was able to rescue the child. He named her Glory. Today she lives in one of our homes.
Our friends and supporters were just tremendous. The money came from various sources, some small, sacrificial gifts. One of the larger gifts was from Olivia and George Harrison, who both took a personal interest in the girls whom I’d originally met and the mission to rescue children from sex slavery. When the Beatles Anthology was released, George suggested that a portion of the profits go to charity and our work in India was one of many to benefit. After George’s sad passing, My Sweet Lord was re-released with the profits going to good causes and Olivia remembered us once more. The money paid for two years running costs for a shelter we had started deep in the heart of Bombay’s red light district. It was open every day and night to give protection and help for the children of prostitutes.
Our good friend, Steve Brown, Billy Connolly’s manager, introduced him to the work and it captured his heart and Billy donated one night’s concert takings to us in 1997. It was a huge sum of money and we had the choice of using it to pay for the running costs for our first home for one entire year. Instead, we built a second home and even more children were rescued. Billy and Steve launched Tickety-Boo Tea with the help of Nadeem Ahmed’s company Global Tea & Commodities and all the profits from the sale of the tea paid for the running costs of these homes for several years. But the pressure was turned up when companies like Tescos and Safeway were unable to give us shelf space for the ‘chari-tea’ and we were faced with the challenge of raising the operational costs of the homes.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in India has been like a “time bomb” ticking away beneath the surface. India has about 5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, the largest number in the Asia Pacific region and only the second largest in the world after South Africa. The impact in Bombay’s red light district has been devastating. The police have called Reverend Deveraj frequently to ask for his assistance over dead bodies in the sex district. They know he’s the only one they can rely on to deal with the consequences of the AIDS explosion.
Some of the girls who had been rescued had seen their mothers die from AIDS and a few were HIV+. Stirred by the situation, we took up the challenge to start another home for children orphaned by the disease. My daughter Rachel had become a pen pal with one of the girls in our homes and donated some of her pocket money to the work so she decided to raise funds for this new project through a sky dive. Rachel’s jump raised a phenomenal £75,000 from generous Jubilee supporters that secured matched funding from the Laing Trust here in the UK and from a similar arrangement through Ann Buwalda and Jubilee Campaign in the US. As a result, we secured all the funds to build this new home and run it for three years. It was a powerful demonstration of the difference we can make with imagination and commitment.
Rachel spent a memorable week with the girls at our homes in Bombay and wrote this heartfelt poem on her return.
The Children Whom Life Forgot
In the bright sun these children play
The lucky few who got away
They were picked up, they were helped out
They were shown what life’s all about
Here they are happy, here they run free
But they need no reminder of how their lives could have been
Before they were freed, their lives were a shock
These were the children, of whom life forgot
They once lived in hatred, in dirt and in fear
And if they cried for help, no one would hear
Their lives had no meaning, no future prepared
And in this vicious circle, no girl would be spared
For in any second, as time moves along
They’d be forced into the life, which had just killed their mum
Then in the blink of an eye, their childhood is gone
There’s no time for growing, as life must go on
They’ll soon become masters of the trade
And have children whose life will be just the same
Imagine a life with no hope and no meaning
Imagine a house with no walls and no ceiling
Imagine being taught to expect nothing from life
Imagine waking each day to more pain and strife
Imagine looking down the street, knowing that’s all you’ve got
Imagine knowing you’re the child of whom life forgot
These few lucky children whose lives have been spared
Now live for a reason, their future’s been paved
They carry a spirit, which cannot be measured
They live a rich life, which doesn’t need treasures
They’ve learned life’s big secrets, its lessons we’re told
They know the life they’re living is richer than gold
They now have a purpose, their name means a lot
They’re no longer the children of whom life forgot
For now, these bright children play under the sun
Their lives once forgotten have now just begun
The mission in India has been an extraordinary success. It’s been a privilege to be a part of this remarkable work and an inspiring experience for everyone involved. But it is still tough to keep the work going. Over 100 girls have been rescued or have taken refugee in one of our homes or shelters in Bombay. Some of the older girls have moved on to further education or found employment. Asha, the first girl who was rescued has married and had her first child, and has herself rescued others. It is an extraordinary triumph of faith and courage. If these children had not been rescued, every one of these girls would have become a twenty-first century slave.
Find out how you can help Asha and girls like her