MUMBAI, India — The women standing along Falkland Road call out to us: “Walk in. Walk in.”
One woman — to advertise what’s for sale inside the brothels that line the street — makes a circle with a thumb and finger and rapidly thrusts the index finger of her other hand in and out.
A poster for a movie called “Virgin Sales” hangs beside the open doorway of a decrepit building. A few doors down, a young girl sits on a stoop, surrounded by the chaos and dangers of the world’s most infamous red light district.
As we step inside a brothel in the nearby Grant Road district, darkness envelopes us. The next stairstep in front of me is barely visible as IndyStar visuals editor Mykal McEldowney and I climb to the second floor. The wood, in the heat and humidity of the monsoon season, feels sticky beneath my shoes.
It is late afternoon, a few hours before the evening rush, and women and pimps are still resting in a row of small rooms along a narrow hallway. A woman is sprawled, either asleep or unconscious, on the floor in one room. Adult and children’s clothing hangs from the ceiling, drying in the heat of the day. Garbage buckets and empty beer bottles sit outside the rooms. The blend of odors — from food, sweat, urine and rot — is overpowering.
Our guides, social workers who requested for their protection that we not publish their names, lead us into a small apartment shared by a young mother and her husband. He also is her pimp.
Then we meet their son. He is 5 years old, with big brown eyes and a shy smile. He wears Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shoes.
The social workers have come here because they want to help the child enroll in a boarding school. His mother supports the move; his father wants to keep the boy with him in the brothel.
As we are served glasses of scalding coffee, the boy tells us, through a translator, that he wants to grow up to be a police officer.
That’s someday. Today, this brothel is his home.
Life is brutal in these dark halls and squalid rooms. Violence is a constant threat. Alcoholism is rampant. Strangers wander up the stairs to buy sex late into the night. A child has few defenses here, and although we’re told that the boy’s gender gives him some protection from sexual abuse, he’s still at severe risk.
Many survivors of India’s brothels describe a horrific conditioning period during their first days and weeks in the sex trade. Rape, beatings, starvation and isolation are used to break the spirit and capture the mind.
“I said that I didn’t want to stay there. I started crying,” one trafficking survivor told International Justice Mission researchers in the 2017 report, “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Mumbai.” “So the (manager) took off all my clothes, she didn’t leave one piece of clothing on and took me to the door. She said, ‘You can now go wherever you want.’ Then she put on the (music) and beat me a lot… The green chili, she put it on my body and beat me”
An adult survivor, in an interview at IJM’s offices here, told me she traveled to the city from another part of India on the promise of a good job. When she arrived, she was told she had been sold to a brothel, where she was held captive and forced to have sex with three to four men a day. A friend eventually helped her escape.
It’s a story repeated hundreds of thousands of times a year here and in other cities in India, where the level of exploitation is staggering even for a nation of 1.32 billion people. IJM researchers in 2017 found that about 5 percent of sex workers in public brothels, like the one we entered, are younger than 18.
Although brothel districts such as Falkland Road and Grant Road have shrunk in recent years as wealth and gentrification rise in the city, they’ve been replaced by private networks, which often make online matches between sex buyers and those they exploit. IJM found that more than 10 percent of sex workers in Mumbai’s private networks are minors.
IJM staff and others credit India’s government with strengthening and more consistently enforcing anti-trafficking laws in recent years. But the Ministry of Women and Child Development estimated in 2014 that more than 3 million women and children are trafficked each year inside the country. In 2009, federal police reported that 1.2 million children a year are exploited in India’s commercial sex trade — a number that matches the United Nations’ estimate for the entire globe.
How accurate are those estimates? No one knows for certain. As elsewhere in the world, sex trafficking in India — and in particular the child sex trade — involves hidden crimes that defy precise measurement. But there’s no question that the sex trade here is large and lucrative and that women and children are exploited in overwhelming numbers to meet an insatiable demand.
Before we entered the brothel, our guides warned us repeatedly of the dangers. Take no photographs, we were told. Ask no probing questions. Our cover story: We are here to observe how the social workers do their jobs.
Even as an adult, I would be terrified if forced to spend one night in this hellish place. The little boy with the shy smile spends every night here. It is his normal.
As we leave his family’s apartment to venture deeper into the brothel, I look back at a sweet child in Ninja Turtles sneakers. I wave goodbye. He waves back.
The world in that moment is a dark and depressing place
“We used to think that the poor and vulnerable are the only victims but now after the penetration of the internet and communication systems, human trafficking is at the doorstep of every family.”
Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister, state of Maharashtra.
On the long journey back from India to Indiana, I reflected on the people I’d met — the victims and their advocates, the buyers and the pimps — and the lessons I’d learned after more than a year of research and 92,000 miles of travel.
Often, I’ve been asked why a 56-year-old man from the American Midwest had invested so much time, energy and passion in telling this story?
My simple answer: Because we shouldn’t accept the unacceptable.
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is not like the monsoon rain. It is not some unstoppable force that we must resign ourselves to endure.
Change is possible, even when it involves deeply entrenched cultural attitudes and personal habits.
While I was reporting on this project, the Harvey Weinstein scandal exploded in Hollywood. The exposure of rampant sexual harassment and assault quickly spread to politics, the news media and the corporate world. It also sparked a national discussion about the prevalence of sexual misconduct in American society and the pressures that keep victims from breaking the silence about the abuse they suffered.
Much about that discussion was good and necessary, but largely missing was an exploration of the cultural attitudes that help create and reinforce men’s predatory behavior. Those same forces drive the demand that keeps sex traffickers in business.
Men often exploit children and adults because they believe they are entitled to sex whenever, wherever and however they want it. Far too often cultural cues — in entertainment, pornography and social traditions — reinforce that belief.
Yes, we need police and prosecutors to be more aggressive in targeting sex buyers. We need to punish and shame third parties such as Backpage.com that profit from the exploitation of children. We need better international cooperation and more consistent enforcement of existing laws to reduce sex tourism that exploits those younger than 18.
But most of all we need to promote a healthy sexuality that’s based on true consent, respect and choice.
Even as someone who has witnessed the worst in human sexual behavior, I believe that the destructive cultural messages that help shape exploitation can be changed, and in time the behavior itself reduced.
Is that naive? Perhaps. But I find hope in one of several massive cultural transformations in my lifetime.
In 1961, the year I was born, nearly half of American adults used tobacco. Three years later, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a landmark report that linked cigarette smoking with a heightened risk of cancer. And the world began to change. Slowly.
By 2015, the adult smoking rate in the U.S. had declined to about 15 percent. Over the course of decades, the powerful interests that pushed people to kill themselves one smoke at a time were beaten back. More critical, the cultural drivers that taught us that smoking was elite and cool, and acceptable even in schools and hospitals, were defeated. A vast societal shift has been achieved.
The same can be true — must be true — with child trafficking. It is not inevitable. But it will take a life time to defeat the financial forces and cultural attitudes that drive commercial sexual exploitation.
It won’t be easy. But one million children a year exploited in the worst ways imaginable make it a necessary fight.
A second question I’m often asked: How did exposure to so much ugliness affect you?
It often was difficult. At times, frustration, sadness, anger and depression were my traveling companions. At times, in seeing adults’ cruel indifference to children’s suffering, I questioned our common humanity.
But ultimately I have arrived at a place of hope.
And I have landed here in large part because of the amazing resilience of the more than 60 survivors I’ve met in the past year. They have overcome the worst of humanity, and their courage inspires me.
I’ve been inspired as well by the dedication of so many people around the world who are fighting to protect and restore wounded children. They often work in harsh conditions and do so with few outward rewards. They have become my heroes.
Before our journey ends, we have one more stop. Allow me, in the final installment in the EXPLOITED series, to introduce you to three people whose stories encouraged me on the darkest days. They, and so many others, give us reason to hope.
Next: ‘The police harassed me enough to save my life’
Contact Swarens at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @tswarens. Friend him on Facebook at Tim Swarens.