going back to not quite the same place

For those who haven’t noticed, I’m in Mumbai at the moment, at a conference I’ve been a part of organising. It’s been a journey that started a couple of years ago, but became really real to me last May, when I came out here to meet some of the people involved, see the city and talk plans. But it wasn’t the tours of possible venues, or the discussion of possible programmes that really made the difference: it was the chance to go out and see why we were coming to Mumbai for this thing, to visit two of the many ministries and organisations working in the city to bring and end to poverty and injustice.

My last visit was to the Red Light district, where I was taken out into the streets to visit some of the girls in a brothel with the team that visits them regularly. And then I had to get in a taxi and go to the airport, and spent pretty much the whole flight to Dubai writing about 5000 words in an attempt to process the experience, which got distilled down into this

For as long as we’ve been working on this conference we’ve been trying to incorporate a day where everyone could leave the conference venue and go and see what was going on in the city for themselves. The place I visited last May was one of the options, and I did think for a moment about going back – I thought, let’s see what happened in the last 18 months. But then I thought, no, let’s not. I wasn’t sure if I could cope if I went back and nothing much had changed, or if I met a couple of the same people – because change is so slow and incremental in that place that I know it would be almost impossible for me to see.

I decided to go to a different project run by the same organisation in a slightly different part of the red light district – a place called Kamathipura – to get a sense of a different piece of the anti-trafficking problem. I went to see a day care centre, in a somewhat different context than I’m used to encountering them.

It was small room up a narrow flight of stairs, subdivided into an office, a toilet and washing area, a cooking space, and a spot for working with the kids. The whole space was about the same size as the bathroom in my hotel room this week. The kids usually do a bit of school work and some play, and we arrived at the end of their day, so we got playtime, and singing and dancing time – and as one of our group had brought her guitar, and a few spoke Hindi we got to be really involved for a little while.

And then the kids went home, and we had to confront the reality of the homes they were going to, and the world they live in, as we talked with A., the lady who runs the day centre, about the work she does and challenges she faces.

One of the things we talked about was the difficulty of freeing the mother from her job, and about ways of ensuring that her children don’t need to follow her into the business. This part of the Red Light District apparently isn’t run on a brothel system, unlike the bit I visited last year – so the women working here aren’t held captive in a trafficking situation, but by the inability to think about being anywhere else doing anything else, by the fact that once you have done the unthinkable in selling yourself once, it becomes easier to do it a second time, and the fact that once the kids have seen their mothers’ do it, and survive, it becomes an option in their minds too.

As we talked, it became apparent that we’d arrived on a tough day for A., but also that the continual struggle and cycle of life in the red light district was wearing her down. When someone asked her what her dream would be for this area, given all the resources of money and people, she struggled to see beyond containment and tiny victory followed by tiny victory. And I know, this work is tough, and long-term change is incremental, and a tiny victory is a victory, damnit, but it was as sad, in a different kind of way, as the homes the kids ran off to when they left the centre at the end of their day, because without the heart to believe in the possibility of more, it feels like you are dooming yourself to be the proverbial person with their finger in the dyke.

And so, while the children were adorable and wonderful, and, well, children, the highlight, for me, was watching the group I was with engage with the project and the challenges it faces. The majority of the group was young women – between about 20 – 40 years old, from all around the world, but all working in some way with people and communities affected by trafficking. The questions they asked, and connections they made, with our hosts and with each other is the thing that gives me hope. At one moment, we were talking about how hard it is to break the cycles that exist in the Red Light District – and one of them said, yes, but that puts all the pressure on the women and children living in the area, but imagine if the demand for the sex trade went away, what then? How much difference would that make? (Answer: A Very Lot of Difference) And it was straight into 15 minutes of how can we challenge men to treat women differently and want something that isn’t this for a relationship with a woman. It was amazing to hear, and there was a huge boldness in them, the work they’re doing and the things they want to work for. They want to dream big dreams, and meet the challenges head on, and after this week, they get to do it together, even if they’re scattered across the country. And they’re not going to be satisfied with just keeping their finger in the dyke.

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