Purnima Ahire speaks haltingly in English with a pronounced Marathi accent, an attempt that draws a round of laughter from the women huddled in a lane near Ashok Talkies outside Thane station.
“Kai English madam dhandha karayla aali ka kai (An English madam has come for sex work)?” says one of them, setting off the others again.
The 21-year-old from Umerga, Osmanabad, clams up. Her mentor Renuka Varahade, 34, puts an arm around her and tells her to ignore them. “Many who come for dhandha can’t even write or speak decent Marathi. Purnima has studied till Class 11, so they are envious,” she says.
Purinima’s sister’s wedding two years ago put her father in debt. Unable to withstand pressure from the local money lender after his crop failed, he drank a bottle of pesticide in January. Besides her mother, Purnima now has to support her sister and brother, so she decided to find work.
“Renukatai knew my mother. She told her I’d find work as a domestic help in Aurangabad. Once I found out the nature of the work, I called home to tell mother. She cried, but said I must cope to help the family,” says a blank-faced Purnima, whose family thinks she works as a maid. “If I keep crying, will that feed my family? Here Tai protects me and I get to send money home,” says Purnima.
Brothel-keeper Pushpa Malepu admits that new arrivals from drought-hit parts of Maharashtra have increased: “Earlier they came from poor families, but now even educated girls from families who have lost everything to crop failure in the last 2-3 years are taking to the sex trade.”
The profile of Mumbai’s sex workers is changing. At one time, 75% of sex workers in the city were from Nepal. Traffickers then shifted focus to Bangladesh where regular floods and poverty ensured new recruits. There came a point when one in every three sex workers in Mumbai was Bangladeshi.
Activists in Mumbai, Pune and Nashik admit that more educated Marathi-speaking girls are being pushed into the sex trade. This is like the situation following the drought of 1972, when 70% girls in the trade were from Maharashtra (Marathwada), Karnataka (Raichur-Gulbarga), and Andhra Pradesh (Rayalseema) — areas worst hit by drought.
“Now, there are more Marathi-speaking girls being pushed into the trade,” says Pravin Patkar, founder-chairman of Prerana, an organisation working with sex workers since 1986.
Patkar says the first signs of distress were seen last during Diwali, when sex workers started migrating to Mumbai from the drought-hit belts of Vidarbha and Marathwada: “With the overall drop in purchasing power, work became scarce, forcing them here. This shows the levels of distress. Unless interventions are put in place, the number of new recruits from these regions could rise rapidly.”
Indu Bhalerao, 36, is one such sex worker. She left Latur for Mumbai last September because of the lack of clients. “Here I can at least have food. In Latur, I didn’t have enough to provide for my family in my village, and was going hungry myself.”
Bharti Lad is a 23-year-old from Jalna district of Maharashtra. “Our family owned a sugarcane field which was divided after a family dispute. My father lost his share as he ran up huge debts paying off lawyers two years ago. We started working as labourers. Now, since there’s no water, there’s no work. We even had to sell the cow to the butchers,” she says in chaste Marathi. Bharti lives in a flat in Malad. “Regular customers mean I have enough to send at least Rs5,000 back home every month.”
The women waiting outside closed shop-fronts near Ashok Talkies are hungry and settle for a quick meal of bhurji-pao. “After 11pm, the police come… To avoid lafda (trouble), many of us head home,” says Purnima, who cannot resist checking herself in a broken mirror on the bhurji pao cart.
Renukatai hails an auto to take them to their hovel at the base of Parsik Hill at Kalwa (East), where two more girls stay. It’s past 11.30pm and the autowallah tries to get fresh. “Same place?” he leers in the rear-view mirror, eliciting a quick retort from the feisty Renuka, who spits out gutka and asks him: “Where else? Do you want to take us home to meet your mother?”
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