As you climb the rickety wooden stairs of Simplex building at Grant Road (East), amid smells of food, sweat, dust, urine and cosmetics, you pass pimps and stout madams seated on wooden stools outside the worn doors of closet-sized rooms.
This 70-year-old, three-storey structure is one of the oldest prostitution hubs in the city. Inside the tiny rooms, about 500 sex workers ply their trade.
It is here that German PhD student of Indian origin Maria Chaya, 36, has been coming nearly every day for the past three years, as she works on her doctorate thesis on sex workers in Mumbai, in an exchange programme between the University of Kassel in Germany and the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
“Having lived in an orphanage in Mangalore before I was adopted by my German parents, their background of poverty and marginalisation, their struggle for survival, reminds me of my own roots,” says Chaya. “So I decided to do my PhD on how these women juggle their drastically different lives at home and in the brothels.”
Over the past 10 years, Chaya has interviewed 30 women and 10 children. In March, she will return to Germany to submit her as-yet-untitled thesis by the end of the year.
The theme of Chaya’s sociology/psychology doctorate study was meant to be the dual lives that these women lead — spending half the week as doting mothers and wives in their middle-class homes and the other half calling out to customers in red-light areas.
Then, four months ago, a police raid saw 294 women sent to shelter homes and 56 madams and pimps arrested, and Chaya decided to expand the focus of her study.
She is now examining the many dualities that these women battle — the schism between their home and work lives, the fractured identity that comes from offering a service in plain sight and yet being invisible in the eyes of society and its institutions and finally, the irony of living in squalor while a hungry real-estate market wait for you to fade away from prime land worth crores.
“Over the years, I have become well-acquainted with a number of my study subjects, learning about their other lives, their children, how their husbands felt about their work,” says Chaya. “I have seen how their living and working conditions have deteriorated as a result of all these factors.”
Average savings of the 10,000-odd commercial sex workers operating in the 15 buildings around Simplex, instance, have dropped by up to 40%, says social worker Shraddha Shelke, head of Aruna Project, an initiative by NGO Oasis India to improve living conditions and medical facilities available to CSWs.
Naina*, 31, who has worked at Simplex building for seven years, told HT that she is worried about paying her two children’s school fees. Her earnings kept the family going, since her husband, a daily wage earner, brings home just R5,000 a month.
Another, more alarming, concern is that the desperation to earn money is forcing some of them to no longer insist on customers using a condom, says Shilpa Merchant, chairperson of NGO Sangini, which runs a cooperative that provides banking and medical services to CSWs. “This is hazardous for the women, their customers and all the families involved.”
Meanwhile, commercial sex workers who had been seeking treatment for sexually transmitted and other diseases can no longer afford medical care either.
“If the business continues to suffer, I will just give it up,” says Kanta*, 50, from Kolkata, a CSW for 20 years.
Social workers, meanwhile, say raids and action to evict commercial sex workers are ineffective, short-term approaches.
“Whenever they are shunted out of one building, they find another building or area to operate out of. The only real change is that they become more desperate and are open to greater exploitation,” says Merchant of NGO Sangini. “The only justification for the arrests would be if sex workers rehabilitated in a safe and progressive environment and given an alternative means to survive.”
* Names of sex workers have been changed to protect their identities