New Delhi, India — A thin veil of pollution shimmers in the evening air above Garstin Bastion Road in India’s capital city. By day this road is home to a huge hardware market, but by night it becomes the capital’s largest red light district. Over 3,500 women and their children live in 90 dilapidated brothels here, just a few minutes drive from the Rajpath Marg, India’s equivalent of the Washington Mall.
Every day men, women, and children are transported across the subcontinent and forced into slave labor or sex work. According to last year’s Global Slavery Index, India has over 18 million people living in modern slavery, most of whom are forced to work in brutal farming and factory conditions. And though there are no official figures on how many become victims of sex trafficking, activists estimate the number is somewhere between 3 million and 9 million.
In 2017 alone, almost 20,000 women and children were moved around India for this purpose, a 25 percent increase from the previous year according to government data, though the unofficial number is much higher. According to the Indian government, an average of 400 girls and women went missing every day in 2015 — and many are feared to have been forced into sex work.
On Garstin Bastion Road, the gritty details of India’s sex-slavery crisis is on full display.
The hardware shops along the street close at night, but dark stairways fill with men queuing up to enter one of the many brothels. A pimp in a tattered shirt gestures at a doorway. “Young girl, Bhai (bro). Pretty. Good price, good price.”
Halfway down the road is Kotha 64 — the largest brothel. Inside rooms are filled with darkness and a smell of dirt and perfume lingers. The floors are littered with used condoms and cigarette butts. In the first room, all the windows are boarded up and several LED lights give the place a hospital-like glow. Around the sides of the room there are a dozen tiny compartments.
Twenty women sit on benches as men stand around ogling them. The average rate is 300 rupees ($5), but the women will be lucky if they see a fifth of the fee — many are trapped in lifelong debt to their owners and pimps. Local charities working to free women from the sex trade say that at least 90 percent of the women and girls here are victims of sex slavery.
Forced into bondage at a young age
Girls forced into the sex trade usually start at the age of 12 or 13. “Human trafficking dealers get good money,” explains Dipesh Tank, a project director at the Rescue Foundation. “You can buy a minor girl for 5,000 to 10,000 rupees ($75 to $150) in the north or in Nepal, and sell her in a metropolitan city for over 200,000 ($3,300). The younger the girl, the higher the price, especially if she’s a virgin.”
Once they’re in the hands of the pimps and traffickers there will be a so-called “breaking period” where the girls are often locked in a cell, starved, tortured, and raped. The pimps and madams often give the underage girls hormones like oxytocin or oradexon (cow steroids) so they’ll develop curves and bring in more customers.
Often, this process will happen in the brothels themselves. Walking down Kotha 64’s hallways, the twists and turns in the building’s design hint at hidden rooms. Bina Rani, the CEO of IPartner India, a charity funding anti sex trafficking campaigns, says that this is often where the children of trafficked women live. There are “hundreds of children hidden away,” Rani said.
Some small-scale charities are making inroads to help these women and children. The NGO Kat Katha has provided education to some of the children who live on GB Road and organized medical check-ups for the women there. But underfunding and intimidation remain huge problems for these small organizations, and without greater attention and government support, there’s only so much they can do.
Even when a girl is somehow rescued from this horrific trade, rehabilitation can take a lifetime. “We rescue loads of girls, but because of social stigma, many of their parents don’t want the rescued daughters back,” Tank explains.
Corruption and turning a blind eye
Despite the scale of the problem, convictions for human trafficking remain low — in 2014, there were only 100 convictions. “Interstate investigations never happen,” said Tank, “traffickers can just disappear across state lines.”
Although prostitution is not illegal in India, the activities that accompany it are, such as slavery, soliciting, pimping, and management of a brothel. The problem is well known, but politicians and police often appear unable or unwilling to address the issue.
According to local NGOs, police officers often make deals with brothel owners — they can make hundreds of thousands of rupees a month in bribes just for looking the other way and giving tips on the next raid.
Politicians aren’t much better, says Delhi’s high commissioner for women Swati Malilwal. “[GB Road] is running 3 kilometers from the parliament — there is a complicity, everybody, right from the top to the bottom,” Malilwal told VICE News. “The system is involved, otherwise a place like this would never exist. There’s an organized racket because on daily business we’re talking about a multi-million crore industry.”
In May 2016, India’s ministry for women and children unveiled the draft of a new anti-trafficking law. It was hailed as the first ever comprehensive attempt to tackle trafficking — modernizing a host of archaic laws which often see sex trafficking survivors treated as complicit criminals rather than as victims. But political intransigence and ideological division over the issue have meant the bill is yet to be implemented.
Will Brown is a freelance journalist working on development, politics and human rights issues. He has recently been researching sex trafficking networks and child labor in India. He tweets at @_will_brown.