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From a dimly-lit alley a teenage pimp emerges to tout a schoolgirl held prisoner inside the six-floor brothel behind him. “I can get you young girls,” he boasts. “Minor, only been used four or five times. Everything is for sale here in Mumbai, sir.”
Somewhere in there is a girl whose stolen innocence is a sordid selling point in the rat-infested red-light district of Kamathipura district.
In this labyrinth of rubbish-strewn lanes, where homeless tots sleep rough beside wild-eyed junkies, there are thousands of such girls, some as young as six. They are slaves, sold to child traffickers by their own penniless families in other parts of India.
Kamathipura was first set up by the British for the use of colonial troops. It was called a “comfort zone”.
When our forces left in 1947 local pimps moved in, scenting easy money to be made by exploiting children.
So while Britain prepares to enact a Modern Slavery Bill which will hand out life sentences to human traffickers, India remains the country with more people trapped in forced labour than any other.
A Global Slavery Index released recently said the world’s second most populated nation contains nearly half of the world’s slaves. A total of 15 million people, many of them children, are forced to work for no pay as domestic servants, miners, cotton pickers and, worst of all, prostitutes.
Slavery is the world’s third most profitable business for organised crime syndicates, behind only guns and drugs.
And amid the teeming chaos of Mumbai, the youngest victims of the sex trade are held in pitch-black wooden box cages inside secret rooms deep in the brothels.
These tiny locked cells are concealed behind trapdoors and false walls and the girls, daubed in make-up by their captors, the girls have no means of escape from the paedophiles client who prowl by night, undisturbed by allegedly corrupt police.
Seena Simon, who runs a halfway house for rescued girls, explains: “The girls are kept plump and beautiful in their cages like chickens being factory farmed. The pimps prefer them as young as possible to make more money. Men here will pay more for younger girls. That is why they are hidden away.”
One Indian child rights organisation says 40% of prostitutes inside the country are of school age.
I meet one recently rescued girl, 16-year-old Padma, from the state of Utter Pradesh, who was sold by her indebted parents when she was six.
She tells me her father first resorted to begging, then took out a loan that he couldn’t pay it back. The loan sharks beat up her parents and threatened to kill them unless they sold Padma, their youngest child, to a female trafficker in their gang.
“The lady beat me all the time – I never knew why,” says Padma. “After that she brought me here, to Mumbai.
“First of all I was made to be a slave in this lady’s house. By then I was seven. About a year after that I was handed to this gang. One of the men told me I had to be ready to be a woman.
“They made me start to put on make-up. One day he told me to take off my clothes. I didn’t know what I would have to do.
“He attacked me, he molested me; I had no idea what was happening. I was completely petrified while it continued. When he had finished, the woman who had sold me locked the door from the outside and left me there. I was naked and crying.
“When she came to speak to me the next day, she said, ‘It’s not a sin, it’s just what we do’. I was threatened so many times that I just decided to accept what they wanted. I was nine then. I had become a prostitute.”
Padma speaks with astonishing composure while recounting her ordeal. But while she is dressed maturely in a pink sari, her facial expressions are still child-like.
Our interview is conducted in her dormitory room, decorated like a child’s bedroom with stencilled pictured of angels on brightly-coloured walls.
The building is deliberately in a quiet street far from the predators who might seek revenge on girls who have slipped the net.
Padma calmly describes how she was made to suffer in silence as she was raped by a continual stream of men from 4pm until 4am every night.
If she ever complained about the abuse, she would be beaten, tied up, or even starved of food.
“Once they undressed me, tied me to the ceiling fan and then turned it on,” she remembers. “I was slapped as I was spinning around.”
The account of this torture makes me recoil in revulsion; Padma just carries on telling her tragic story.
“The men would come into the brothel and choose one of us in the waiting room, where we all sat,” Padma adds.
“I would be earning thousands of rupees every night, but I never got any of the money. In the daytime I had to baby-sit some of the younger girls, so I never really slept properly.
“There were many of us, sometimes as many as ten, all crammed together in a tiny, hot room during the day. It was horrible.”
Padma was finally rescued last year when the police raided the brothel.
On that occasion, like many others, the pimps and the traffickers who control the girls all got away.
Another girl at the refuge, Dishita, tells how the brothel keeper would always be warned in advance of a police raid.
She would be temporarily shipped out to another building.
Dishita was kept locked up in a room only big enough for a tiny mattress. Food would be pushed through a slot; she had to knock on the door for hours before being allowed to the toilet.
She, like many at the centre, is HIV positive. And she faces a grim future while trying to reconcile her awful past.
Her friend Rashmi, 18, was sold to a brothel by her own mother when she was only eight.
Seena says some of the girls under her care are so traumatised they have totally blanked out their past.
Most cannot sleep at night because they are so used to their nocturnal lives.
“The worst cases I have heard are of children being taken from their mothers when they are still in hospital after giving birth,” Seena says. “They are sold on to eventually be used in the brothels when they are still primary school age.
“You cannot see these very young girls; they are kept out of public view on the streets, but they are there.”
“The traffickers tell their families they will get the girls a job in Mumbai,” she adds.
They pay about £50 to take them away.
She continues: “Once they get here, they are sold on to brothels for ten times that – 50,000 rupees.
“The girls are in their debt from the moment they pass through the door. Until they have worked enough to pay off that 50,000, and a lot more besides, they cannot leave. Often they have to sleep with 15 to 20 men a night. It is the brothel keeper who keeps the money, not them.
“Sometimes the police carry out raids in the red light district, but this still carries on. I think they turn a blind eye. It is totally corrupt. In India, just as in Britain, it is a very serious offence to have sex with a juvenile, but they choose to do nothing about it.
“Child prostitution is growing. It’s a big money-making business and they allow it to happen. None of them are thinking about the effect on a girl’s life.”
In Britain, shocking cases like that of three women held as slaves in south London remain rare.
Here in the seedy, foul-smelling lanes of Kamathipura there are not only slave children in the brothels, but also younger boys and girls forced into manual labour.
Charity Tearfund, which helps fund the halfway house, says traffickers exploit parents who have lost everything after natural disasters.
“When families lose breadwinners and even their homes, they fall prey to opportunistic child traffickers,” the humanitarian agency says.
“Out of desperation, families accept the offer, without realising that their child will be sold into the sex industry or into child labour.”