Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Asia. The whole group came, along with our trip advisor and one of her friends who knew the way. Its about 15 minutes from my hotel, a 1 minute walk from the metro station . I didn’t expect to enjoy it necessarily, but I thought it would be interesting to see. It turns out…..its pretty awful. Really awful. Go figure.
There are somewhere around 10,000 prostitutes in the district, which has hundreds of multi-story brothels. We went through a few alleys around 8am, which is before business starts. There were old women and children around, so I assumed that things would clear out before business started. We saw a few buildings and alleys which were pretty clearly brothels, but it wasn’t obvious. They don’t have the money to make things look nice. Its just a run-down residential area…with a different function at night. By the time we went through our third alley, it was around 9am, and suddenly business had started. Women lined up down the street, each one looking at me at I passed. Our guide told us that if one of us guys was there by ourselves, every one of them would be badgering us, negotiating a price. He said, “I wouldn’t dare go down this alley alone.”
Here’s the thing about the red light district: in your head, you might have pictures of what its like. You might be able to imagine your prototypical prostitute. But when you’re there, looking at these women in the eyes, you realize how incredibly real and human each one of them is. I saw humanity in each of their faces. In many eyes I saw fear, in many others I saw a clear look of self-degradation. None looked happy, or excited. Thousands of women in Sonagachi are held there against their will; I couldn’t help wondering which women face that horror as I passed them. Many of the girls were….just that. Girls. To see a 14 or 15 year old girl standing out there on the street….is tough. Especially for the girls in our group. The women don’t have the money for lingerie or anything like that; the majority of the girls were just wearing jeans and the smallest t-shirt they own. Its a clear example of how poor the women are; indeed, poverty is the reason they are all here in the first place.
I saw a mother walking down the street in front of us with her son. The boy was about 8 or 9; the mother was wearing a skimpy glittery yellow dress and high heels, holding her son’s hand. That’s when I started to realize how real it all really is. How human these women are. And how sad it is that, for whatever reason, they’ve been driven into this. And the reality is, I still can’t understand it at all. There are so many alleys, so many women, and a personal story attached to each one. I just saw a handful of women, tried to avoid looking them in the eye, and never said a word to them. The full reality is beyond what I could possibly fathom. Maybe beyond what anyone could fathom.
I learned that the small group of girls from our group have been saved from trafficking. I don’t know whether this means that their parents were trafficked and the children were saved, or whether they themselves were trafficked for the sex-trade and got saved. Probably both. Either way, these girls must be under 12.They are beautiful girls. If I saw one of them on the street, I think I’d cry. I think they might too.
And the worst part about it is that this exists in every country in the world.