By John Gillespie
It’s around noon. There’s a scintillating blend of putrid waste, thick petrol fumes and the scent of freshly picked jasmine flowers saturating the air. Grant Road, Mumbai is alive and bustling. It is an important area for local trade, and a busy thoroughfare for those clothed in colourful saris, pinstripe suits and school uniforms alike: the old and the young, the rich and the poor, and the privileged and the unprivileged all share the same street to conduct their daily business.
Among Grant Road’s restaurants, fruit shops, shoe stalls, and mimosa carts one will find buildings of a shabby and unremarkable appearance. Herein lies the darker side of south Mumbai.
Grant Road hosts a number of brothels, within which live women who for years may never leave the confines of the building that socially, economically, and spiritually imprisons them. Gandhi’s dreams of a casteless and gender-equal India are yet to be realised seventy years on from their inception. The result is the continuing reality of unsuspecting girls being either sold into prostitution by their own families, or forced into such work by pure desperation.
The women from the brothels are said to be identifiable as prostitutes by their caste and by the clothes that they wear. From my perspective, however, these indicators are not clear. Offering chai tea to me in a well-presented but tiny kitchen on the second floor of a Grant Road brothel are four proud Indian women. The giveaway is their palpable sadness. Some have marks on their skin. Others have children who will never know who their father is.
For those who make their living at night, the working day has not yet begun. This is when the workers of the Aruna Project, and I along with them, have come to visit. We are welcomed in by the pimps and madams, as they see the benefits that real connection and compassion can have on the wellbeing of the women. The Aruna Project workers are themselves mainly women, and hence in this tragic place it is women who have stood up to help their sisters rebuild their lives. Most of the men who come through these doors pay to enter (the clients) or are paid to leave (the police). The rest count the cash (the pimps).
The aim of the Aruna Project is to help the women leave the brothels, an incredibly difficult process as despite the harrowing life experienced within those four walls, such a life offers the women relative safety and stability. Some of the women were sold so young that they find it hard to conceptualise the idea of ‘freedom’. The rule of the pimps is often that a woman is free to leave the brothel upon repayment of the fee paid for the woman. But leave into what? Uneducated, living in a strange city, subjugated by the caste system, the women have a feasible route out, but no obvious destination. Even for the most talented women, a lack of lineage credentials makes getting into university tremendously difficult. Regarded by some as ‘tainted’, the option of simply returning to the home village is not commonly viable either. Some women would in any case be unable to communicate with their own family members, having lost their native language in the brothels. The tragic magnitude of severance caused by trafficking seems unassailable.
This is where the Aruna Project seeks to help. It has, along with its associated charity, Oasis India, a drop-in centre on Grant Road. This runs free daytime courses for the women that teach things like ‘life skills’ and basic numeracy, English language, and reading and writing, so that the women can build employability skills and thereby a future for themselves.
The results of these schools are incredible, boasting a remarkable record of success. Hundreds of women brave Grant Road’s bustle to attend the drop-in centre each year, and more than twenty women every year use their new skills to leave the brothels of south Mumbai behind and start a new life. Some of these women join me on this day, now working with the Aruna Project to help save other women, just as they have been saved.
I sit in the kitchen attentive. The conversation is conducted in Hindi, and so my mind wanders to consider what makes the Aruna Project so successful. The women smile, and sing and pray together, and I am filled with hope for them. Here is a sisterhood powerful enough to overcome the oppression that the women find themselves in. The Aruna Project’s aim is to unlock the spirit inside every woman so that they can command their own future. It is so fitting that it is also women who hold the key.
For more information, and details on how to donate to the projects, see:
By John Gillespie
Image: John Gillespie