So, deciding to be brave, I went to the red-light district of a Mumbai slum. Husband was working, so I contacted Tearfund, and they arranged for me to visit one of their projects. Beforehand, I was very nervous about going on my own, but I am so glad I did it.
I was met by Max, who is the director of Sahaara. We’ve never met, so it was a little like a spy story -“I will be under the arch with a pink carnation in my buttonhole” (Well, actually, he just told reception who he was and we met in the hotel lobby, but you get the idea.) We then got a taxi to Turbhe, the area of the slum he works in. We chatted in the car, and I could check on a few things I’ve included in my latest novel (which is set partly in the slums of Delhi).
As we walked through the slums, it was all very familiar to places I saw in Delhi. Homes made from scavenged materials -uneven walls, unglazed windows, corrugated iron roofs. The hard mud paths were litter strewn, in a couple of weeks they’ll be quagmires of wet mud.
Roads were pot holed, narrow, stalls and heaps of rubbish making obstacles for vehicles to inch around. At one point the road was blocked as a lorry driver was asleep, curled up over the steering wheel, oblivious to the honking from other drivers who were unable to pass.
We first went to a building (actually, it was really just a narrow room) which is a feeding centre/education room. In May, everything closes (due to the heat) but they were still providing a midday meal. They had two gas burners, one with a pressure cooker of dhal, one with a vat of rice.
There was a bowl of hard boiled eggs, which they must’ve cooked earlier. No worksurface (no idea how they chop vegetables – they must do it in their hand, on a plate balanced somewhere). No sink, no running water. There were cupboards, some of them very high. At one point a woman climbed, a foot on a shelf, other foot on the top of a cupboard door, to reach plates from a top cupboard. Metal plates were stacked on a drainer.
They were washed in a bucket on the floor, the water fetched from an outside water butt. Water is piped into the slum once in the morning, once in the evening, and people fill containers to use throughout the day.
The children arrived. Black eyed, smiling, interested to see a big white woman sitting in their room (I feel huge in India. Everyone is smaller than me. Husband is a giant here.) I took lots of photos, but I’m uncomfortable about publishing them here, as most of the children had mothers who were sex workers. I will include fuzzy ones of backs, but not include faces, and hope that preserves their annonimity (we were on the edge of the red light district, I could photograph houses on the left, not on the right.)
These children were growing up in an environment where prostitution is the norm. Sahaara is educating them, so they don’t follow their mothers into the same profession, they will have choices in life. Previously, they found that some children arrived only for the food. They made a rule, if the kids don’t attend lessons, they can’t eat. People complained, but now they all come to lessons. Seems a wise decision to me – if we just feed the poor, they will always be poor. (This is why I like Tearfund/Sahaara – they sometimes make unpopular decisions if it is for a greater good.)
They showed me the toilet, a room with a drain, a bucket, and a ladle. Absolutely no idea how it should be used (thankfully, was just a morning visit, I didnt need to use a loo). Max told me that families are more likely to have a mobile phone than a toilet. There was also a fridge (not in the toilet, just in the room).
While we were there, the power went out. This happens every Friday. There isn’t enough electricity, so different areas have no power for certain times during the week. They never know how long the power cut will last, sometimes a few hours, but when I was there it came back on after about 30 minutes. The fridge whirred back into life and the ceiling fan stirred the warm air. Would make the fridge pretty useless for anything other than drinks though.
We walked through the red light district. The houses here were slightly better, I guess it pays well. Each little house had 3 or 4 women outside, just sitting on chairs or on the floor. I thought they were sitting in the shade, chatting to each other. (Later realised they were soliciting customers – am a bit naive about such things). Sahaara has a second centre in the heart of the red light district.
Here, they chat to the women, teach them skills like sewing, hairdressing, making things from junk; enabling them to have other life choices if they want to choose a different career. Max said it’s about caring for the women, showing them that God loves them, that they have worth, that they matter. Sahaara has a 9 point plan, starting with recognising the women, then greeting them, then befriending them, then inviting them to the centre, then the women coming on their own…. until, hopefully, they will decide they want to leave. If they do, then there are safe houses they can go to, to adjust to life outside the red light district, somewhere they can start to rebuild their lives.
Usually the centre is shut during May, but they opened it to show me inside. When they saw it was open, a couple of women came in, to see what was happening. Max said I could talk to them ( someone translated for me) and asked me to pray with them. I will change their names. Actually, I will give them English names, in the hope you will see they were just women, the same as us, but with different lives.
Maria spoke to me first. She was about 35 ( age in the slums is a bit uncertain, she said she was 31, Max thought she was slightly older). She was short, plump, with lovely clear skin, and when she smiled, her whole face sparkled. She told me she had moved to Mumbai from a rural community because there was no work and she needed money. A friend who had already moved helped her to get a job as a construction worker. It was poorly paid, very hard labour. Another friend approached her, told her that people at home already thought she was a prostitute, her reputation was already ruined. So why not join her in the brothel? She would earn more, doing easier work. So she did.
I asked if she had children. She has two grown sons, aged 21 and 15. If you do the maths, that tells its own story -Maria had been a child bride. I have no idea where her husband is now, but her sons live back with her mother. She never sees them, but they text her ( her phone is better than mine. But then, everyones phone is better than mine. When I showed her photos of my own children on my phone, she laughed at it!)
I then prayed with her. She wanted me to pray for her sons. I’m not sure how it rated as a prayer, it felt more like I was being a lucky talisman, but maybe God will use it somehow to reach her. I kept thinking about when Jesus met with ‘fallen’ women in the Bible stories, how he was always kind to them.
Maria hurried off after the prayer. She works during the day, so needed to get back to her brothel. Which isn’t quite what happens after prayer meetings at my home church.
I chatted to Sally. She was heavily pregnant, the baby is due very soon. She is no longer a prostitute, as she earned enough to buy a couple of rooms, and the rent from one covers her own living expenses. She told me she has a husband, but it seemed vague, I think she was living with a man but it wasn’t necessarily permanent. When the baby comes, she will go to the local hospital for the birth. After a couple of days, she’ll return home, and will pretty much be on her own. She’s already bought baby clothes and nappies ( that she can wash) from the local market. When the baby is 3 months old, she will travel for 3 days on a train to visit her mother. She’ll stay with her Mum for about a month. Her Mum cannot come to her, because her reputation is bad and she lives in a disreputable area. Can you imagine – three days on a hot crowded train, on your own, with a three month old baby? Not sure I could’ve done that.
Sally wanted me to pray for her baby. She’d had a baby a few years ago, but he had died. I prayed with her. Then we left. As we walked back to the feeding centre, I saw Maria, sitting outside her brothel. We smiled and waved at each other – friends. But with lives in different worlds.
These women were young enough to be my daughters. Caring about them was easy.
Back at the other centre, about 35 children sat on the floor. One child said grace (I think it was in English, which seems bizarre, as they all spoke Hindi. But I was tired, brain was fuzzy by then, so maybe was imagining it). They ate from the tin plates, no cutlery, scooping the food with their right hands. The women were busy, one dishing up the food on plates, the others taking it round to the kids. I nearly offered to help, but then I realised, it was like Lunch Club at home. Everyone had a role and knew what they were doing, the last thing they wanted was some big foreign woman getting in the way!
We got a taxi back to the hotel, and Max delivered me safely to the lobby. I was so glad I had been, met the women, seen the children. It makes it easier to support the work and talk about it to others. Everyone has a different story. Some of the women would have been trafficked as children, some had gone into prostitution by choice, because their options were very limited. Max said they work with everyone, the prostitutes, their children, the pimps. They all need to be cared for.
It would be easy to judge, but their lives are tougher than ours, we are not so very different inside. If Sally finds she cannot make enough money from rent, she may well decide to go back to her village, to buy a young girl, to act as her pimp, so she can feed her own child. Not because she is more wicked than you or me, but because she has grown up in a harsher place, where survival means hard choices.
Sahaara is trying to show that God loves them, wants a better life for them and their children, and is teaching them the skills so they can make that choice. But the decision has to be theirs. All Sahaara can do is give them the choice. All we can do is help to provide the resources, and pray.
Thank you for reading. If you would like to help support Sahaara or learn more about their work, go to tearfund.org for more details.