The forgotten children of Sonagachi

For the children of Sonagachi, it’s not just growing up in the shadow of their mothers’ clients they struggle with – but the risk that they will be forcefully trafficked into the sex trade themselves. Meanwhile, the police do little. Will Brown reports

A picture of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore looks down on a small bare room. Outside, the morning air heaves with pollution and the sound of chattering men.

Small children slowly file into the room. Some are brought in by their mothers. Others appear out of nowhere, slipping in with oversized clothes, thin faces, and wide smiles.

These are the children of Sonagachi, Kolkata’s sprawling red-light district.

Laxmi (her name has been changed) doesn’t look like a 5-year-old girl. Her hair has been cut short to make her look like a boy, for safety.

She seems older than the other children and sets about reading the names of various flowers out loud in English with her teacher. She does well, but struggles over ‘rhododendron’. She gives up grinning and turns to her friend’s puzzle.

There’s no space for her or any of the other children at home. Their mothers are sex workers and sleep with up to 15 men a day to pay for debts. They’ll bring home as little as $2-3 a day, enough for food and the rent of a small room.

For a few hours a day the children, aged three to six, can escape their mothers’ clients at the day-centre run by an NGO, New Light. Otherwise, they’ll have to sit outside the room or play in the streets, for hours on end.

Trapped inside Sonagachi

Around 10,000 women and girls work as prostitutes in Sonagachi. The maze of dilapidated multi-storey brothels is reportedly the largest red-light district in Asia. The area is ridden with crime and seems to operate almost entirely outside of the law.

Sonagachi is one of the key trafficking hubs in South Asia. According to some charities, including Child Line India, thousands of people are trafficked over the border from Bangladesh every year. Many go through the district and on to brothels or exploitation around the country.

A girl’s virginity sells at a premium in India’s red-light districts and given how vulnerable they are, sex workers’ children are prime targets of the sex trafficking industry.

Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of anti-trafficking group Apne Aap, says few will pay any attention if a child disappears.

Many of the women and girls are trapped in the sex industry at a young age, and forced to pay huge debts to traffickers and pimps. Others, with few options available to them, are simply forced into the industry by sheer poverty.

If they’re trafficked into the system, pimps and traffickers will often break a new girl in until she cannot offer any more resistance. Often, this means locking her in a room for several weeks, with no sunlight, and raping her continually until she gives in and agrees to sleep with men.

Sex workers, and their families, are often regarded as subhuman in India. So, once women and girls enter the prostitution system, poverty, social discrimination and intimidation keep them there.

Targeting children

Whole generations can get locked into the cycle. Hundreds – if not thousands – of children live in and around Sonagachi. According to NGOs, most have a poor education at best and often they’ll have a host of mental illnesses from coping with the environment. When the children reach puberty, they’re prime targets of the local sex traffickers and pimps.

However, even the smaller children are in danger of being forced into slavery. ‘The children are at a very high risk,’ says Sima, a social worker at NGO New Light.

If they’re trafficked into the system, pimps and traffickers will often break a new girl in until she cannot offer any more resistance. Often, this means locking her in a room for several weeks, with no sunlight, and raping her continually

‘Some of the children come from a long line of prostitutes and we’re very worried about these girls getting pushed into prostitution. It’s not just the girls who are targeted. Many of the boys grow up to become pimps,’ says Sima, who has worked at the centre for six years.

Official statistics showed that 400 women and children went missing every day in India in 2015. However, according to activists and investigators, the majority of cases go unreported – and official statistics only show a fraction of what’s actually going on behind closed doors.

Pushed on massive economic growth and massive rural-urban migration, trafficking and modern-day slavery are flourishing in India. And in total, experts estimate there are anywhere from 3 to 9 million victims of sex trafficking in the country.

When asked what how many police stations were profiting from the trafficking industry in India, Ruchira, who has worked extensively across Asia for the UN, said, ‘I think it’s easier to ask how many police centres aren’t corrupt? I can probably count them on my fingers.’

Everyone knows this is going on, but most of the police are making too much money from the industry to care about what happens to children like Laxmi.