By Heather Hintze
MAHARASHTRA, India — In India, three million women make their living as prostitutes, and nearly of third of those are under the age of 18.
In Mumbai alone, there are more than 200,000 sex workers.
For many of these women, their children end up becoming prostitutes as well because it’s the only life they know.
India Partners hopes to end that cycle by creating safe houses to give these women and children a better life.
While these little girls sing Sunday school songs, it wasn’t long ago they seemed doomed to follow in their mothers’ footsteps selling their bodies on the streets of Mumbai.
“They’ve all been rescued from a brothel. Their mothers are prostitutes, women who’ve made a decision for their children to come out of the brothel and be in a safe place,” said Kaytie Fiedler, India Partners Field Rep.
This safe place is called Anandalay, meaning place of joy.
Eight girls ages five to nine now call it home.
“The good thing about the Anandalay house is the immediate transformation we can see in the lives of these children because we met them when they were in the red light area and the life that they were leading there, it was a horrible existence. But we can see so much change, so much freedom, so much liberation, so much joy on their faces. That’s the greatest privilege we have,” said Arthur Thangiah, Sahaara Chair.
“I have seen the kids in the places from where they’ve come and I could only understand one thing. They need love,” said Arumina Chouguley, Anandalay teacher.
At Anandalay they get more than love. Staff work to ensure the girls have a family and a future.
“We are a huge family. This project is a huge family. And we all understand that the children are here as family members. So that is the best thing I like, the we have actually started gifting them dreams. Each one has a dream,” Chouguley said.
Across town there is a safe house for women who’ve led a life of prostitution, but have finally escaped the red light districts.
“At this place they have to opportunity for a completely new life. They’ve been set free from a bondage, something they could be captured in for the rest of their lives,” Fiedler said.
Their stories are heart breaking. Shanti breaks into tears, telling how her own mother sold her into prostitution.
Reshme was trafficked by her uncle when she was just 12 years old.
For 20 years she was forced to sell her body, contracting HIV and even losing her six-year-old child to the disease.
“I personally can never understand what they’ve been through. The horror of living a life of servicing 12 men a night at the minimum, just the physical and emotional abuse that they’ve been through. And then to have the courage to leave and the courage to want to change, I’m so proud of them. I think they’re the bravest women on the planet,” Fiedler said.
Sharan Sthan, meaning place of refuge, is their home now where staff help the women achieve their dreams.
Two of the women are working to become nurses, while the third wants to become a cosmetologist.
“When you look at the hugeness of the problem, it sort of overwhelms you. But we can see that one at a time they are coming out, that gives us hope. Our vision is to keep scaling this up so that one day we can see a stop to this whole trafficking trade,” Thangiah said.
In the heart of a red light district, the children sing at a school set up by India Partners.
Their mothers are prostitutes.
The school is a place where the kids can go to get a full meal and a valuable education.
“If they can learn that they don’t need to do what their mothers are doing, they can go off and show others that there is hope in a hopeless situation,” Fiedler said.
These safe houses and schools are just the first step toward ending the prostitution cycle in Mumbai.
India Partners’ goal is to get as many women and children into these shelters as they can. Once they reach capacity, they’ll look at opening more shelters.