Sex Trade Reveals Ticking Time Bomb

India 2005

By Troy Turner

June 10, 2009

MUMBAI, India – She is 24 years old.

Her husband died almost a year ago, and she lost her son, too.

Desperate, unsure and disheartened, the young widow lives today in the crowded redlight district of this seaport town formerly known as Bombay, and still known as a place where a man can find easy companionship.

Her room is part of an apartment complex, if you can call it that, where many of the doorways are without doors. It's hard to determine if that is because it makes the rooms more inviting, or simply more tolerable of the smelly odors that drift through the air like invisible eels; seeking something on which to cling.

Her unit, like the others, consists of two rooms and is shared, in more ways than one.

There are three solid wooden bunks in a room, made sturdy to endure age and action. Sometimes an old mattress will cover the bunks. Sitting somewhere nearby are used water bottles, although the current owners provide a whole new meaning for used. Any kind of plastic container, no matter where it is found, is cherished for hauling and storing drinking water in the apartments.

A smelly, two-door outhouse sits in the tiny center courtyard, only a few feet from her front door. A plank or two are missing from the bottom left corner of one door, the left door, and someone is bent down and peering out from it. All the passerby can see is an upside-down nose and a set of curious eyes.

A single light bulb hangs in her room, although the ceiling remains dark enough for it to be difficult to notice that a ceiling fan hangs overhead. It's an old fan, perhaps too old to work anymore. Today, it's still.

Inside this enchanted palace is her domain.

She survives by sharing it with her roommates, and with her clients.

She survives by sharing herself, for 10 to 50 rupees a visit.

Fifty rupees is slightly more than $1.

Directly across the street from the woman's apartment complex is a medical clinic run by Dr. I.S. Gilada.

Like other storefronts on the narrow, bustling street crammed with people, bicycles and smoky delivery trucks, it is small and looks tucked into a hunched-over stack of crowded buildings.

Unlike the others, however, its frontside colors aren't painted with the heavy makeup and flashy clothes worn by the prostitutes leaning against it. Instead, it is white, with red lettering and a red cross marking it as a medical facility.

Gilada is one of the many heroes of India.

Between his private practice and whatever he gets for directing the People's Health Organization, he makes enough money to buy a nice suit and furnish a nice office. But people like Gilada must find joy in something other than money to do what they do, and to do it so well.

Gilada is one of the too few people in India who paint a target instead of camouflage on the AIDS problem.

Much of India's top government and society act frustrated at the very notion of a conservative country like this seriously having an AIDS issue. It's only the prostitutes, the truck drivers and the truck stops, they argue. It's an overblown topic, not worthy of discussion, they say.

“It is a scare that has been blown completely out of proportion,” a longtime journalist in New Delhi said. “The West is afraid it will come from here and invade the West.”

Others agree. There already is a national program in place, and “our perception is that it is not going to ‘explode',” India's foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, said. “It is a serious problem, but we believe we have taken the proper steps.”

India is a country with a warm climate, perhaps too warm to be skating on such thin ice.

Gilada and the health organization he leads are tackling the AIDS threat in a specific theater of combat – the sex industry.

Before launching a program aimed at protecting sex workers with education, health care and promotion of condom use, he visited the brothels.

“They thought I was a client,” he said with a sheepish smile. “They didn't know who I was or what was my business.”

His business in the early days was to learn about the sex trade. What he found is painful to accept.

“Young girls, mostly from outside of India, are sometimes bought at auction and brought here. They ask at the auction, ‘Who wants to get this girl for the first time?' They may be 12, 13, 14 years old.” Gilada said. A good price is $1,000, but many are sold for much, much less.

It is not uncommon to hear stories of families in poverty that sell their daughters, or work hard to get them married to a man who has money. Young girls in the slums also strike out on their own when they realize their potential for earning income.

Girls and women, whether recruited, bought or stolen, are brought by the truckloads to the redlight district of Mumbai.

A stroll through the streets here is akin to being in an open sex market. It normally is not the high-class clientele who visit here, although some do.

Those girls with the right looks or right moves are used as dance girls, where they will dance at so-called gentlemen's clubs and entice customers to seek more than what they see on the dance floor.

Most, however, are placed in dingy brothels, where there are various levels of management that supervise them, in pyramid-type levels of authority. Each level of management has more girls under supervision.

Each room has a manager, and a single room could be shared by 8-10 girls.

It used to be that each prostitute was expected to have at least five clients a day. Now it's down to two, although averages and norms are hard to peg in a place like this.

And what happens to a woman when she gets too old and unattractive?

First, she lowers her rates to the cheapest prices on the market. When there are no takers and business stops, or she stops working, she either is given a support job such as cleaning or errand-running, or she is told to leave and is evicted.

The prostitutes get to keep half of what they earn from each client. The other half goes to the management of the brothel.

Gilada is one of those who tries to scream a message, in a land not used to screams.

Gilada, like most in the medical community, understands the explosiveness of AIDS and how it quickly can become a wildfire of disease and death. He's not alone in the fight.

“Arguably, we have the largest scale population living with AIDS,” said Ashok Alexander . . . of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation office in New Delhi.

India is a land of 1 billion people. Literature provided by the Foundation reports that “globally, 1 in 8 people living with HIV resides in India, a total of 5 million people, with half a million new infections added last year alone.”

“There is a window of opportunity to contain the epidemic by scaling up proven HIV prevention efforts; however, the HIV response in India is grossly under-resourced.”

Similar to the apathy and emotions found in the AIDS-HIV plagued country of South Africa, there is a tremendous challenge with the stigma of AIDS in India.

“I picked up a 2-year-old boy who had been abandoned on the street,” Alexander said. Fearing the child might have AIDS; “his parents had put him out on a curb because of the stigma.”

While the epidemic is growing, it still is largely found among high-risk behavior groups, according to the Gates Foundation. This includes the hotel industry, where often the glitz, glamour and education of a working girl dabbling in the sex trade only translates to a higher price, but equal risk.

Also, health officials are well aware of India's new up-and-coming yuppie, middle-class crowd of mostly young people who are realizing the current high-tech economic boom. Kids with money and time for socializing can mean risks in any society, health experts warn.

That, in addition to the thriving sex industry in the region, is why AIDS must be stopped now, not when it IS a problem that monopolizes the halls of parliament.

If India waits until then to take the problem seriously, it will be too late.

Programs like that run by Gilada are working. AIDS counts in the districts he serves are down significantly, and many women are talked out of the sex industry altogether.

The Gates Foundation is another success story. And the all-favorite sport of cricket now has its biggest stars occasionally making a pitch in television ads to protect against AIDS.

Still, India sits on a time bomb. A land of so many people, with so much poverty, cannot avoid the threats of change its youth bring to today's culture, and it most certainly never will see a disappearance of the world's oldest profession.

To address the problem, India can't be a nation with an upside-down nose and curious eyes, peering IN to the outhouse.

It must nail the planks down.