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The Burned and Bloodied Sex Workers of South Mumbai

By Helen Rimell

An estimated 100,000 sex workers currently earn a living working in the brothels of South Mumbai’s red-light districts. Most of them are not there voluntarily, but rather, have been sold into sex work, sometimes by a relative or trusted family friend. Some are born into it. Life within the red-light districts isn't easy. In fact, it's pretty much like living in a giant toilet bowl full of syringes and awful people. These women live on the fringes of a society defined by the unrelenting harshness of its edges. They are frowned upon and ignored.

I began my photo essay on a group of sex workers based in the red-light districts of Kamathipura, Falkland Road, and Worli. The prostitutes work with Social Activities Integration (SAI), a small NGO modeled on the Didi ("Sister") Project. These women take what they learn about HIV, STDs, and women's rights back to their communities and teach others about the importance of condoms and HIV testing, giving them a sense of purpose and self-respect—in addition to helping them reduce the risk of sexual disease.

After getting to know some of the women, I felt the need to make my project more personal, in order to tell their stories. Obviously, each of them was a sister, a mother, or a daughter, not just a sex worker. I looked to create images of intimacy, femininity, and tenderness that would contrast with the often brutal reality of their lives. I wanted the viewer to gain insight into the lives of these women. This set of photographs is a selection focusing on violence against these women, taken from my project ,The Sisters of Kamathipura.

The women the project focuses on include Hajra, who is HIV-positive and severely scarred after being set on fire with a kerosene lamp. She is generous, determined, and has an amazing sense of humor. There is also Jyoti, who is 19 and lives in her mother’s brothel. She would have liked to be a policewoman so that she could help women like her sister and mother, but she did not finish her education. Like most teenagers, Jyoti loves music and makeup. Salma and Sony both have young daughters. In a perfect world, Sony would be a Bollywood actress; Salma’s only dream is to keep her daughter safe.



Mumtaz, 35, was a mother and grandmother, and loved her work as a Peer Educator. Mumtaz died from septicemia after being covered in kerosene and set aflame, suffering burns on 85 percent of her body. The police report states the cause of death as suicide, but her family adamantly believes that she was murdered by her partner. Her family asked me to photograph the funeral rites, holding nothing back, as they want the world to know what happened to her.

The premature deaths of sex workers in India is an all too common occurrence. Sex workers continue to live in squalid conditions, isolated from the rest of society, trapped in a life of poverty and, often, slavery, from which there isn't really an escape. Official stats regarding violence against India's female sex workers are nonexistent, as incidents are rarely reported to the authorities, and when they are, very little is done.

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