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 similar 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 mid-day 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 work-surface (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 carried in 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 anonymity (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, so they will have choices in life.
Previously, they found that some children arrived only for the food. Sahaara therefore 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 didn’t 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 of the slums 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. It 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 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.
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.
I have included some of the women’s stories in my latest novel:
CLARA – A Good Psychopath?
Available from bookshops and Amazon, as both a paperback and Kindle book.
Why not buy a copy today?
UK link below