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The Burned and Bloodied Sex Workers of South Mumbai

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...

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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Hajra, Mumtaz, and Sheinaz take a break from fieldwork in a red-light district in Solapur, South Maharashtra. The three women work as peer educators with SAI, an NGO based in Mumbai.

A customer at the brothel in 14th Lane, Kamathipura. Many of the clients have problems with drugs and alcohol, which can make them violent.

Hajra is covered in scars from being beaten, tortured, and burned, with both cigarettes and kerosene. Shown here are burns from a previous partner who set her aflame in front of her two children. She was forced to jump from a first-floor window to escape.

Gambling, a nightly ritual in the red-light districts of Mumbai, along with drinking and drug use—14th Lane, Kamathipura.

Hajra and Sheinaz live in the same room and work in the same brothel. Many of the women look out for each other.

Shaila and her young son are terrified as Shaila's pimp has found her after she ran away and is taking her back to her previous brothel where she was constantly beaten and abused.

The threat of violence is always in the air.

Not long after this image was taken Salma was badly beaten by her partner, who is also her pimp, for arriving home late. Salma has been beaten and sold into various brothels in three different cities.

Seven-year-old Laxmi stands in front of the room she shares with her mother Sangita in a brothel on Hauman Galli. The room is also her mother's place of work.

Sony used to dance in a bar until it was closed down. She now works in a hotel, standing on a stage with other girls until a client chooses her.

Hajra waits with family and friends outside the trauma care unit of a Mumbai hospital for news of Mumtaz, who was admitted with burns to 85 percent of her body after being set on fire.

Family members have to hold Durga, 23, Mumtaz's eldest daughter back as she tries to throw herself upon her mother's body. Durga is a widow and has two children of her own.

Mumtaz, 35, died from septicemia after having been covered in kerosene and set aflame. The police report states the cause of death as suicide, but her family believe she was murdered by her partner.

Mumtaz's sister and eldest daughters wait outside the funeral ground while her body is cremated. Her 18-year-old daughter was getting married as her mother was admitted to hospital.

Mumtaz's body is prepared for cremation in accordance with traditional Hindu customs and beliefs.

Mumtaz's relatives grieve for her as her body is cremated.

Violence against sex workers in India is a huge problem. However, the official statistics are unknown as incidents are rarely reported to the authorities, and when they are, very little is done.