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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


RIGHTS-INDIA: Building a New Life for HIV-Infected Child Sex Workers

Inter Press Service - October 24, 2000
Sujoy Dhar


CALCUTTA, India, Oct 24 (IPS) - Fourteen-year-old Shefali knows she has lost life's battle. Outwardly, she is listless and morose. But inside, she seethes with anger as she remembers the past few years of her life.

Shefali is infected with HIV, picked up during the agonising years she spent in a dank and dark, windowless room in a brothel in India's western metropolis of Mumbai.

Now living in a rehabilitation centre for former child sex workers, in the eastern metropolis of Calcutta, the bitterness often surfaces as she flies into an uncontrollable rage.

"She was barely nine when she was sold for Rs 25,000 (about 600 U.S. dollars) by none other than her father to a Mumbai brothel. She was abused by hordes of men and beaten up by madams. By the time she was rescued in a police operation, she had got HIV," says Indrani Sinha, director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) 'Sanlaap' , which runs the centre.

Shefali is one of the thousands of children from poor families in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, who are forced into the sex trade every year, she says. "When they come to us, some of them are victims of such physical brutality, which is worse than a gang rape. We have to stitch them first and then think about dealing with their mental trauma," says Sinha.


The girl children are even "prepared" for clients by using artificial sexual aids, she says. "One girl even died of infection in such a case of brutality," she adds.

The centre has 12 former child sex workers who are infected with HIV. One of them is Razia, who left her home at the age of 15 years following a fight with her parents. She boarded a train for Mumbai to meet her uncle. At the Mumbai railway station, she was tricked by a man who offered to take her to her uncle's house, but sold Razia to a brothel.

Razia says she had several opportunities to escape, but adds she had lost even the desire to run away. "There was no point then. My life was ruined," she says.

"Not all of them are suffering from AIDS but the psychological trauma of most of them is too deep to be forgotten. And so they are often depressed, often withdrawn and often too aggressive from the irritation of their past life," says Sanlaap's Sinha.

Besides psychiatric help, which includes individual and group counselling, the centre also offers the children a chance to start a new life by training them in new livelihood skills.

"I always wanted to go back to my family but now I don't. I know I have AIDS and so I want to stay here and do something good," says Razia.

One of the HIV-infected girls in the centre is deaf and dumb. "She is barely 15 and we don't even understand what mental trauma she is undergoing as she cannot express her feelings. We are often clueless about how to treat such a girl," says Sinha.

According to Sinha, 70 percent of the 218 girl children rescued during a police raid some years ago on a Mumbai brothel, were found HIV- infected. "These minors are more prone to the infection as they don't have the power to say no to sex without a condom," she says.

According to NGOs working with former child sex workers, there is a widespread network for procuring minor girls from the villages of India's eastern border state of West Bengal, neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal.


"It is a very organised racket under which the traffickers reach remote areas to identify vulnerable families. A bait is used to lure the girl to the city for a better life where they change hands to end up in brothels in India as well as other countries," says Sinha.

Police authorities in this city admit that they can do little to rescue the children because the brothel owners are in league with corrupt police officials.

"The brothel owners have informers in our department and any plan of a raid reaches them prior (to the planned rescue)," says a senior police officer in Calcutta, who did not want to be identified.

"The girls are often shoved and locked inside closets or box beds during the police raids," says Sanlaap's Sinha.

The NGOs have been encouraged by statements from organisations of adult sex workers declaring that they would prevent minors being forced to join them. In May 1999, the adult sex workers in Calcutta set up a 'Self-Regulatory Board', which also had people from other walks of life.

Says Board member Mala Singh who has been a sex worker in Calcutta for over a decade: "Henceforth, a newcomer will be presented before the board and if we find someone is coerced or persuaded to engage in the profession as a minor, we will stop that by sending her to a (rehabilitation) home."

"We can now claim that in, at least, three of the 17 red-light areas of greater Calcutta, child prostitution has been stopped," she asserts. "We are doing this at great risk to our security because it economically hurts the pimps and others making a livelihood of trafficking minors," she adds.

However, Sanlaap's Sinha is not convinced. "They might claim so but we find that in Calcutta's largest red-light area Sonagachi, there are still so many minors," she says. (END/IPS/ap-hd-he/sd/mu/00)