“Everyone Knows What Happens Here to Girls”: the Plight the Children of Mumbai’s Sex Workers During the COVID Lockdown

Charu and her daughter Sheela. Photo: Aakanksha.

This is hell
This is a swirling vortex
This is an ugly agony
This is pain wearing a dancer’s anklets…

– From Namdeo Dhasal’s poem ‘Kamathipura’

The always bustling road had gone quiet for the first time in many years. But the women living there could not stay away from work for too long. Rents were pending, their children were back from their hostels during the lockdown, and expenses had increased.

After a gap of nearly four months, by mid-July, 21-year-old Soni started once again standing on the pavements of Falkland road every evening, in the Kamathipura area of central Mumbai. She’d leave behind her five-year-old daughter Esha in the care of the landlady, while she met with clients in nearby small hotels or a friend’s room. She could no longer bring them to her own room because of Esha. (All names in this story have been changed.)

On August 4, when Soni took a break from work around 11 p.m. and came back to her room, she saw Esha crying. “She would be asleep by the time I came to check on her,” Soni says. “But [that night] she kept saying it’s paining, while pointing to her body. It took me some time to understand everything…”

That evening, while Soni was at work, Esha was allegedly raped. Another sex worker, a few doors away, took the little girl to her room under the pretext of giving her a snack. Her partner was waiting there. “He was in nasha and warned my daughter not to say anything to anyone before leaving her,” says Soni. “She was in pain, she told the gharwali [landlady], whom Esha treated like her nani. I am a fool to believe that people like us can have someone to trust. What if out of fear my daughter had never told me of this? Esha knew them and trusted them, that is why she went to their room, otherwise she knows well not to speak to anyone in my absence in this area”

After the incident, Dolly, a former sex worker in the area, who Soni says was aware of the plan to lure her child, tried convincing her to settle the matter. “Everyone knows what happens here to girls. But everyone turns blind to it, and many come to shut our mouths. But I can’t keep quiet,” she adds.

On the same day, August 4, Soni filed a complaint at the nearby Nagpada police station. An FIR (first information report) was made out the next day, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012. As required by that law, the police contacted the state’s Child Welfare Committee, which then is required to provide legal assistance and other support like a counsellor and rehabilitation in a safe environment. Esha was taken to the government-run J. J. Hospital for a medical examination. On August 18, she was moved to a state-aided child-care institution in central Mumbai.


Such incidents though are all too common. A study done in 2010 in red-light areas in Kolkata reported that of the 101 families interviewed, 69 per cent thought that the environment in the area was not good for the well-being of their children, primarily girls. “… discussions with mothers revealed that they felt helpless when a client touched, molested, or teased their daughters verbally,” the study notes. And 100 per cent of the children interviewed said they had heard of cases of sexual abuse of friends, siblings and other children in their neighborhood.

“It’s not new for us to hear he did this or that to one of our daughters or tried getting close, or forced her to view pornography. It’s not just daughters, even young boys suffer here, but no one will open their mouth,” says a sex worker, sitting in during our conversations in Kamathipura.

Another 2018 review paper speaks of the “increased risks of CSA [child sexual abuse] among certain populations that include children of commercial sex workers, young girls with mental health issues, and adolescent boys and girls out of schools and in the labour force.”

The lockdown may have put them at further risk. The number of calls made by kids in various kinds of distress to Childline, an emergency service run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, increased by 50 per cent during two weeks of the lockdown in April, says a June 2020 report by UNICEF titled Strategy for ending violence against children. The report also notes, separately, that “In 94.6 percent of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrators were known to child victims in one way or the other; in 53.7 per cent of cases they were close family members or relatives/friends.”

Some NGOs in Kamathipura that run night or day shelters for children of sex workers while their mothers are at work, offered full-time stay for kids during the lockdown, though other residential hostels in the city shut down and sent the kids home. Esha was at a shelter that continued to house her, but because Soni wasn’t working, she brought her daughter to her room in early June. When Soni wanted to re-start work in July, she tried dropping Esha back to the centre. “They didn’t let her in because of the fear of corona,” she says.

During the early lockdown phase, some ration support had come from local NGOs, but kerosene was still required for cooking. And Soni’s monthly rent of Rs. 7,000 was also pending for two months by the time she decided to re-start work. (After the incident of sexual abuse, Soni shifted to another nearby lane and room on August 10. The new gharwali’s rent is Rs. 250 per day, but she is not insisting on it for now.)

Soni has accumulated a debt of around Rs. 50,000 over the years from gharwalis and others in the area, which she had been repaying in bits. Some of it was for her father’s medical expenses; he was a rickshaw-puller who, due to breathing problems, started selling fruits and passed away in February 2020. “I had to start working or else who would pay the money back?” she asks. Soni sends money to her mother, a homemaker, and three sisters (two are studying, one is married) in her village in Howrah district of West Bengal. But since the lockdown that too had stopped.


Other sex workers in Kamathipura have been fighting similar battles. Priya, in her late 30s, who lives in the same galli as Soni, is hoping hostels will soon take back their kids. Her nine-year-old daughter Riddhi, studying in Class 4, returned from her residential school in nearby Madanpura when the lockdown began.

“Don’t even move out of the room, do whatever you want in this room,” Priya says sternly to her daughter. The list of restrictions on Riddhi’s movements are not due to the fear of Covid. “We live in a place where even if our daughters are eaten by these men, no one will come to even ask,” says Priya, who has partly been managing on small amounts loaned by her regular clients.

The lockdown was difficult for the family, as are its aftereffects. “My condition is bad, I am unable to pay rent and I needed to start working. I cannot keep Riddhi while I work, at least she will be safe in the hostel,” says Priya, who is from Amravati district in Maharashtra, and has been in Kamathipura for more than a decade.

Priya’s 15-year-old son Vikram is with her too. Before the lockdown he was studying in Class 8 in a municipal school in Byculla. When his mother used to meet clients, he would sleep in an adjacent room, wander around, or spend time at a local care centre run by an NGO.

The women here know their sons are also vulnerable to abuse, or easily exposed to drugs and other pitfalls, and some of them enrol the boys too in hostels. Priya tried sending Vikram to a hostel two years ago, but he ran away and came back. In April this year, he started working on and off to support the family – selling masks and tea, cleaning gharwalis’ houses – anything he could find.

“They should come and see our rooms for duri duri banake rakhne ka [social distancing],” says Priya, referring to the 10×10 feet room divided into three rectangular boxes of 4×6. Each unit has a bed that fills the space completely and two shelves. One of the rooms shelters Priya, the other is used by another family, and the middle one (when unoccupied by another family) is used by them for work, or they meet clients in their own units. There is a common corner space for a kitchen and washroom. Many of the housing and work units here are similar – some are even smaller.

For six months now, Priya has been unable to pay the Rs. 6,000 monthly rent for this tiny space, except a small portion that she sliced off from a recent loan. “Each month, I had to take 500 sometimes 1,000 rupees for something. So Vikram’s earnings helped,” she says. “At times we sell [to local shops] some rations [received from NGO and others] to buy ghaslet [kerosene].”

In 2018, Priya had taken a loan of Rs, 40,000 – with interest, it’s now spiralled to Rs. 62,000. And she has only been able to repay Rs. 6,000 so far. Many like Priya rely heavily on private moneylenders in the area.

Priya cannot work much, she has a painful stomach infection. “I have done so many abortions that I am paying for it,” she says. “I went to the hospital but they are busy with corona and ask for Rs. 20,000 for the operation [a hysterectomy] which I cannot pay.” The lockdown has consumed her small savings. In August, she found a job as a domestic worker in the area, earning Rs. 50 a day, but that lasted only a month.

Priya has now pinned at least some of her hopes on the hostels re-opening. “I can’t wait for fate to ruin things for Riddhi,” she says.

And just as her daughter and Soni’s returned to their mothers during the lockdown, a ‘rapid assessment study’ done by Prerana, an NGO working in the area, found that of 74 children of sex workers (30 families were interviewed), 57 have been staying with their families during the lockdown. And 14 of 18 families who live in rented rooms have been unable to pay the rent during this period, while 11 borrowed further during the pandemic.

Charu’s three-year-old daughter Sheela too was brought back home in May from a Kamathipura shelter run by an NGO, when she became ill. “She has some allergy and gets rashes. I had to shave off her head,” says 31-year-old Charu, who has four other children; one daughter is adopted and in Badlapur and three sons are back in the village with relatives – all daily wage labourers – in Katihar district of Bihar. She used to send Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 every month for them, but since the lockdown has had to take more loans. “Now I cannot take more, I don’t know how to pay back,” she says.

So Charu too has to leave Sheela in the gharwali’s house when she goes for work –which she resumed in August. “Do I have a choice?” she asks

Their work though is not bringing in much of an income for the women. “In a week I have been just getting one or two customers,” says Soni. At times it’s four or five, but that’s rare. Earlier the women here could earn between Rs. 400 and Rs. 1,000 a day – and their only holidays were when they were mensurating, really unwell, or when their children were back home. “Now even 200- 500 in a day seems a big thing for us,” says Soni.


“We are looking at very marginalised families which, if they come out and raise their issues, won’t even be considered,” says Jacinta Saldanha, a lawyer at Majlis Legal Centre, and programme manager at the centre’s Rahat project, which provides social-legal support to survivors of sexual violence in Mumbai. She and her team are now handling Esha’s case. “Soni was really courageous to come out in the open. There could be others who don’t speak up. The question of bread and butter is prominent. Multiple factors bind these larger issues.”

She adds that a large network – NGOs, lawyers, counsellors and others – must come together to address the rights of sex workers. “The wrongs done to them traumatise them so much that they don’t know what is right,” Saldanha says. “If anything happens to the sex workers or their children, the general perception in such areas is: what is the big deal? If children’s rights are violated, they blame the mother.”

Meanwhile, in Esha’s case, filed under POCSO, the abuser has been locked up since July 5, while a chargesheet is still to be filed against the co-accused (his partner, the gharwali, and the former sex worker, for abetment), and they are yet to be taken into custody. POCSO mandates imprisonment for the main accused for a term ‘which shall not be less than ten years, but which may extend to imprisonment for life’ and provides for the death penalty too, as well as a fine that ‘shall be just and reasonable and paid to the victim to meet the medical expenses and rehabilitation’. It also requires the state to offer a compensation of up to Rs. 3 lakhs to the child and her family.

She has been unable to meet Esha (due to Covid-related restrictions) since the girl was sent to the child-care institution, and speaks to her on video calls. “What happened to me, I am already bearing it. I am already a barbad woman, but at least they shouldn’t ruin my daughter’s life,” she says. “I don’t want her to step into my kind of life, what I went through. I am fighting because in future I don’t want her to feel that no one stood up for her just like for me no one did.”

After the abuser’s arrest, his partner (who allegedly abetted in the child’s sexual abuse) has been harassing Soni. “She walks into my room to pick up fights and curses me for sending her aadmi to jail. They say I am taking revenge against her, some say I drink and am a careless mother. But fortunately, they are at least calling me a mother.”

This article was first published by the People’s Archive of Rural India.