India: My life in the 'red lights' of Sonagachi

This is the story of Munni, a commercial sex worker from Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India. Sonagachi, translated as Golden Tree, has several hundred multistory brothels built in the winding lanes and is home to some 10,000 sex workers. The place got globally known, when an American documentary film, 'Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids' won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2004.

UNODC interviewed Munni, sixteen years old, who shares how she was trafficked, made her escape, returned to the brothels and how the economy of her trade works.

UNODC: Can you tell us how you came to be here at such a young age?

Munni: All I remember is I am from Bangladesh and I came here when I was ten years old. I tell people I am a Hindu and that my name is Munni. I am sixteen now but I tell people I am twenty years old. I have been here for five years and this is my home. I have no family. 'Ma' (the lady pimp) is my family. She looks after me, feeds me, even gives me money to buy saris (dresses) for Durga Puja. But she means business and I have to work. When I was little, a man came to my house and said he will keep me in a palace and that I will marry a prince but I have to do as he says. He brought me to Kolkata and left me here at one of the dirtiest brothels promising to return but never showed up.

UNODC: Were you treated well in the first brothel?

Munni: The brothel was owned by a fat woman and we called her 'aunty' in Bengali. First she bathed and fed me. I was given a bed to sleep and clean clothes. I felt happy to be among kind people. Then on the third day she put make up on my face and made me stand along with the 20 other girls, for the men to pick their choice. At first I did not understand what was happening and thought we would be selected to go to a new home. When I understood what was happening I tried to escape. I was caught, locked in a dark room for a week and beaten with a thick wooden stick. They made sure not to hit on my face, chest, thigh and stomach as customers would not choose me.
One night aunty was drunk and sleeping and her brother was in another brothel. I ran away as fast as I could. I saw a police man on the road and told him my story. He promised to help me. He and his three friends raped me. I returned to Sonagachi and found a new aunty.

UNODC: How many and what kind of clients visit in a day and how does the business work?

Munni: In this brothel there are 20 to 24 girls and 10 rooms. Not all girls work for aunty. Some come here to chit-chat as business is very slow these days. Some work on their own and have rented rooms in Sonagachi for Rs. 5000 a month. Before two years, in total, we would get around 15 customers a day. In peak time I would get 3-4 customers a day. My earlier rates were Rs. 1000 to 1500 an hour. Some of the high category girls would earlier charge Rs. 6000 to 6500. Now we work on the fixed rate system for all for Rs. 500 per client for one hour. 50 percent of the money earned from each customer goes to aunty. The customer has to separately pay 25 percent extra to her as service charge. Mainly college boys, lawyers, married men, some goras (foreigners), restaurant owners and taxi drivers come. At times the police raid the brothels but aunty slips them some money and offers her best girls to them. The business resumes again.

Since business is slow these days, we parade the streets from 11 am onwards. Competition is high, as almost every day 'dalals' (traffickers) get 5 to 10 girls as young as 7 years old. The brothels are filling up and we are forced to move elsewhere in search of business.

UNODC: We hear non governmental organizations (NGOs) work on prevention of HIV and AIDS among sex workers in Sonagachi. Are you aware of this?

Munni: There are many NGOs here in Sonagachi. They regularly organize shows, gatherings and events on HIV and AIDS and sex worker's rights. We were also taught to insist on the clients to wear condoms which is important to be safe from the killer disease (HIV and AIDS). They also set up a testing camp of HIV and AIDS. Even if we insist on condoms, customers pay an extra 25 percent as a bribe to the aunty. We are not allowed to go to the camps.

UNODC: Are some of the customers drug users?

Munni: Quite a few are drug users. They are usually addicted to nicotine and heroin. They are often sluggish when they come to the brothel and can hardly speak. They force you to try drugs with them as well. One forcefully made me swallow and I fell sick losing a lot of business that day. I had to shell out the loss. They usually agree to use condoms but cannot as they find it difficult because of the drugs.

UNODC: Don't you want to leave Sonagachi someday and find a good job?

Munni: 'Ma' will never let me go and she is good to me and this is my home. She has promised to send me to Mumbai someday. I am here of my own will. Even if I leave this place where will I go? The society will always label me as a prostitute. I am scared wherever I will be employed, the men will rape me. Even if I marry a prince tomorrow and wear expensive saris (dresses) and sit in a big car, people will still think I am a prostitute. I cannot change that. I wanted to become a nurse and take care of people. I have a secret lover and he used to be one of my regular customers. He is a taxi driver and we are planning to marry. I will make sure my daughter is never born into a brothel, is educated and lives her dream.