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I believe I’m the first girl from Mumbai’s red-light area to go to university abroad. I grew up in a room at the top of a brothel in Kamathipura, a neighbourhood that people say is dark and dangerous. But three weeks ago I moved to New York, because I have a scholarship to study at Bard College.
I have to correct people who assume my mother is a prostitute. She is a devadasi, a term for women wedded to a deity who devote their lives to the temple, performing rituals and entertaining people. They are often associated with sex work but my mother told me she is only a devadasi in name and never lived that life.
She worked in a factory all day, so I was brought up by the women in the brothel. I remember them playing with me, bringing me sweets, smacking me when I misbehaved. They would dress up first thing in the morning, before heading off to the streets. I’d see them fighting over customers, handing money to madams and bargaining with clients – factory workers who pay about Rs150 (£1.55) each.
I wasn’t allowed to leave the house after 8pm. Sometimes there were raids at night – the women would pull on their nightgowns and run but the police chased them, demanding bribes and often making them scapegoats in unrelated cases.
Many of the sex workers are sold into the industry and spend their lives struggling to pay their debt to the brothel owner, so they can leave Kamathipura. I remember one woman managed to save up enough money to escape. She left the brothel weeping, dressed in her best clothes and carrying all her bags. Everybody was waiting to say goodbye as she walked through the streets.
The community feels like a big family. It is not the sex workers that are the danger but the men who come into the area. Stories of clients abusing the women aren’t uncommon and as a child I was not only propositioned but sexually abused too. People ask why I talk about abuse so openly. They think it’s shameful. But if we don’t talk about it, how will the problem be solved? I haven’t always been so confident, though. I was bullied at school because of my dark skin. I was called names like “cow dung”. I had no self-esteem and never studied. But I was smart – people used to ask how I got such good grades without working.
A year ago I moved into a shelter for women from the red-light district, run by an organisation called Kranti, who also gave me counselling. That’s when I gained confidence, and I could concentrate better on my studies. The girls at Kranti are good friends. We’ve been trekking in the Himalayas and have travelled around Kerala, giving talks and holding workshops on sexual health and trafficking. But some of the girls have boyfriends and I don’t like the way the boys tell them what to wear and try to control their lives.
When I decided I wanted to study abroad, an alumnus of Bard College who had heard me speak at a conference helped me get a place. I have a full tuition scholarship but I’m still raising money for living expenses through crowdfunding websites. I’m excited about Bard, of course, but I’m also a little nervous. I know I’ll have to write weekly essays but I don’t have the study skills or concentration span for that – not yet, anyway.
Before I left, some people started to treat me differently. My stepfather’s family used to say I was useless, that I’m not pretty and never did housework. Now though, they’re suddenly so warm, even asking me to visit their village.
My plan is to return to Kamathipura after I graduate, to open a free counselling centre for sex workers. But if it was up to me, prostitution would be legal. Then these women could get proper healthcare and go to the police when they’re abused. It would help Kamathipura become an accepted community.