We have been reading in the newspapers how demonetization has curbed trafficking in India. Maybe that's one side of the story. What anti-sex trafficking activists have been hearing from the prostituted women in brothels makes for the bigger story, which somehow the media in the country has missed. This is the story of how demonetization has increased the vulnerabilities and exploitation of not only the prostituted women but also women from communities living on the boundaries.
I accompanied Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal and her team to the brothels of GB Road in Delhi yesterday - brothels housed in buildings with no clue about owners; because in paper, the ownership of these buildings still remain with people who died decades ago. She was on an inspection with representatives from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, whom she wants to conduct a survey about the illegal constructions inside the brothels.
Climbing up narrow staircases stained with paan stains which took one to an equally narrow and dim corridor, and through that to small rooms without ventilation, we visited about five brothels late in the afternoon. Most women were from Nepal and Andhra Pradesh. A few were from West Bengal and I found one from Assam. They have the same story to tell. Abandoned by families or sold by lovers and uncles and aunts. In two brothels we also found kids with their mothers.
"Because it is afternoon now, you see these women having their lunch and not too many people around," Delhi Commission for Women member Farheen Malick told me. "When we visited the brothels in the night some time ago, about 100-150 men and women came out of each brothel. Can you imagine that?"
It was indeed difficult to imagine that number of people in those brothels. But as we took a tour of the brothels, I realised that it might be true. A little room, in each brothel, where ordinarily about six people can sleep comfortably had about 12 to 15 women standing there with their faces covered as we entered. And this little room had several doors and secret passages that led to other little rooms. When we went, the women were having their luch. So the smell of food filled the stale air inside the brothels along with the stench of tobacco.
And in all the five brothels we visited, the prostituted women revealed that they still have customers. That has not stopped even with demonetization. What has happened though is that they are being paid much less than before. One woman also admitted that some customers are still paying her in the old currency. And when I asked her what she did with it, she said she sent it home, to her village in Andhra Pradesh. She said she has two daughters and a son, who live with her aunt in the village.
A few of them did admit that times are difficult with demonetization, but that they will have to stick it out as they don't know of any other way to earn money after all these years. Most of them came to GB Road in their teenaged years. And they have been living here since. I also spoke to the Nayika of three brothels. The Nayika is a woman in her late forties or fifties who came to GB Road in her teens and has spent all her life here. She is now the caretaker of a brothel and that's how she lives by at this stage of her life. The nayikas in all the three brothels displayed great loyalty to the place. They said with exaggerated sadness how business is down these days and that most of the women have gone back home.
"It is the common experience of anti trafficking activists all over the world that at times of crisis - be it economic recession, natural disasters, or ethnic conflicts - trafficking increases," tells me anti trafficking activist Tinku Khanna, who has been with Apne Aap Women Worldwide since 2002, working with abolitionist Ruchira Gupta towards ending sex trafficking through field and policy interventions. "We have to remember that trafficking is not about a single entry and exit point; it is a chain. Immediate payment of money is not a concern for the trafficker, who knows that the money will be recovered sooner or later," she adds. Apne Aap has been working with prostituted women and girls from red light areas in Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi as well as with women and girls from certain caste communities who are at risk of being trafficked.