India's Shame: Sexual Slavery and Political Corruption Are Leading to an AIDS Catastrophe

By Friedman, Robert I. | The Nation, April 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

India's Shame: Sexual Slavery and Political Corruption Are Leading to an AIDS Catastrophe


Friedman, Robert I., The Nation


MIRA WAS 13 YEARS OLD when a small, nervous man from Bombay came to her remote village in Nepal looking for domestic servants. He was offering 600 rupees a month, or $20, a fortune to subsistence farmers scratching out a living in this tiny, landlocked Hindu kingdom in the Himalayas. Mira's father wanted his oldest unmarried daughter to go with the man, but Mira countered, "I can do a better job, Papa. Send me."

Not only had Mira never gone to school but she had never ventured beyond her tribal village. She imagined that Bombay would be a magical place filled with Hindu movie stars and gleaming palaces. She knew that if she stayed at home she would become a burden to her father, who couldn't afford to pay a dowry to a prospective bridegroom's family. It is still common for Hindu brides who renege on their dowries to be drenched in kerosene and ritually burned to death.

Mira was bundled off in the back of a produce truck, which made the long, winding trip to the Indian border, and then south to the great commercial port city of Bombay. Mira soon found that she wouldn't be working as a domestic servant at all. Her father had been duped into giving her to a trafficker in female flesh. Mira was delivered to a brothel on Bombay's notorious Falkland Road, where, in an area as vast as Manhattan's Central Park, tens of thousands of young women in brightly colored saris are displayed in row after row of zoo-like animal cages.

When Mira, a sweet-faced virgin with golden brown skin, refused to have sex, she was dragged into a torture chamber in a dark alley used for "breaking in" new girls. She was locked in a narrow, windowless room without food or water. On the fourth day, when she still refused to work, one of the madam's thugs, called a goonda, wrestled her to the floor and banged her head against the concrete until she passed out. When she awoke, she was naked; a rattan cane smeared with, pureed red chili peppers had been shoved up her vagina. Later, she was raped by the goonda. "They torture you until you say yes," Mira recently recounted during an interview here. "Nobody hears your cries."

After the rape, "I put on cheap makeup and moved into a cage where I was forced to solicit," she says. The madam told Mira that she had been sold to the brothel for 50,000 rupees (about $1,700), and that she had to work until she paid offher debt. But girls like Mira are given only a fraction of their fees and then have to pay the madam for rent, electricity and food. Typically, it takes up to fifteen years for them to purchase their freedom. During that time, if the young woman doesn't succumb to AIDS, malaria or TB, she is a sex slave. She is not allowed to leave the red-light area, which is cordoned off from the rest of Bombay by a well-organized army of pimps and goons. And if she were to escape, where would she go? In a conservative, patriarchal Hindu society obsessed with caste and racial purity, she would almost certainly be shunned by her family for being "polluted." In Mira's case, her freedom was purchased by a client who became her pimp. Today, at the age of 35, no longer a prostitute, she runs a small tea shop in a teeming Bombay slum.

There are more than 100,000 female prostitutes in Bombay, Asia's largest sex bazaar. Ninety percent are indentured slaves, with as many as half trafficked from Nepal, according to human rights groups. Twenty percent of Bombay's commercial sex workers are under 18. Child prostitutes as young as 9 fetch up to 60,000 rupees, or $2,000, at auctions where Arabs from the Persian Gulf bid against Indian men who believe sleeping with a virgin cures gonorrhea and syphilis. "There are lots of rich men in India who can afford to buy virgins so they won't get AIDS," says Maureen Aung-Thwin, a Human Rights Watch official. "Men brag about it."

Actually, more than half of Bombay's prostitutes are infected with H.I.V., according to Human Rights Watch, which says that India's red-light districts are the primary vector of its spread into the general population.

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