Bombay's brothels breed a monster: Fears of an epidemic are rising as Aids preys on women trapped in India's thriving sex trade. Tim McGirk reports

Click to follow
OF THE more than one million Indians who may have the Aids virus, two who face the gravest risk were squatting outside their tin shack in Bombay's Worli red light district. The teenage prostitutes, named Rupa and Neelam, were gossiping while Rupa hunted lice in Neelah's unbraided black hair.

'The doctor-sahib said I was going to die in two years. But look at me,' shrugged Neelah, a dark-skinned, muscular girl from southern India. 'I'm still fat. The disease must have gone.'

Rupa interrupted her. 'Deepika had it. She was always sick and kept shouting at the clients, telling them how much she hated them. She's not there any more. Her gharwalli (the brothel-keeper) said she ran away, but no girl runs more than a few streets from the brothel before she's dragged back by the pimps. I think the gharwalli changed Deepika's name and sold her to another brothel-keeper, somebody who doesn't know that Deepika has the disease,' said Rupa, a thin girl who coughed like an old tyre exploding with a puncture.

It was early, still, in this jumbled, stinking colony of brothels in the Worli slums. An old blind man was being led into one of the dark interiors, wanting either alms or sex. Three goats nibbled at rubbish in the sewers, while children in blue uniforms tumbled back from school to the shacks where, in the evenings, their prostitute mothers have no choice but to drug them with opium. That way, the child will sleep under the thrashing cot where her mother sells herself to a drunken Bihari labourer for 50p.

One vendor passes through the slum colony with sweets; another, a charlatan in a lab coat, opens a case with vials of red liquid. He is the injectionist. For 150 rupees, he offers injections against the Worm, as Aids is called. The red liquid he shoots into the women's veins is coloured water. Rupa is not interested.

'I'm sick, I know. I've lost weight. But it's not Aids. It's tuberculosis - see?' she insisted, fishing two X-rays from under her unmade cot. Nobody had told her TB is one of the many infections that prey on Aids victims.

Bombay's infamous red light districts, where sometimes as many as 10 girls and their clients are jammed into a single, sweaty room, have become a breeding ground for the Aids virus. Health workers fear that, unless prevention is undertaken urgently, India's 850 million people may soon be hit by one of the world's worst Aids epidemics, one that could cripple the meagre medical services. Bombay, according to some social workers, may have nearly 100,000 prostitutes, and if each sleeps with five to eight clients a day, it is easy to comprehend why Aids is spreading so rapidly.

City health workers claim that the number of prostitutes carrying the Aids virus has risen alarmingly, from 0.5 per cent in 1986 to 32 per cent last year. One Aids worker, I S Gilada, reckoned that this year the figure had jumped to more than 50 per cent.

A frightening gauge of how far Aids has spread through the city emerged recently when three state hospitals did random Aids tests on all patients, admitted to hospital for a variety of ailments. One in 10 tested HIV-positive. After a crusade by Dr Gilada and other activists in the Bombay brothel districts, Indian authorities and international aid agencies have finally reacted to the Aids menace. In the past year, social workers have begun passing out condoms in the brothels and saloons. The city has distributed anti-Aids pamphlets in factories, railway yards and government offices, and among lorry drivers who carry the virus through the country.

'The women are powerless - they can't turn away clients who refuse to wear condoms,' said Ranjani Bangera, a worker with the Population Studies Institute. Neelam agreed.

'If we ask a client to wear a condom, he'll say, 'I'm not the dirty one, you are,' and he'll go to another girl. I need the money. I have to pay the gharwalli, the police, the Afghan money-lender, everyone,' she said. 'Besides, if a man gave me this disease, what do I care if another man gets it?'

It is easy to blame these women for their ignorance and their desire for revenge. But many of them have fewer rights than harem slaves. They are illiterate, lower-caste, and mostly from poor villages, where they were sold off by their families to pimps posing as prospective husbands or factory recruiters, for as little as pounds 150. Girls of only nine and 10 years old are bought, traded and locked in the back rooms of the Bombay brothels.

Social activists tried freeing these girls and returning them to their villages. People shunned them, and most of the girls drifted back to the brothels of Bombay, New Delhi and Calcutta.

At present, only two in 10 Indian male clients of prostitutes use condoms. But after the city's anti-Aids campaign, one official said: 'We hope to bring it up to 50 per cent.'

It is a long way from Bangkok, for example, where brothel-owners enforced a 100 per cent condom use policy. Such unity is unlikely among Bombay's madams. Competition is fierce, and until poverty is conquered in India, the supply of new girls sold into prostitution will never stop.

'We have no friends here,' said Neelam, gesturing to a brothel down the alley with broken windows and walls covered in green mould. 'A girl in there had it. A client would go to her, right? And every girl would shout, 'No, no, she has the disease. Come to me instead.' When she died, they were all afraid to go near the body; even the brothel-keeper. It's happening more and more. We're all afraid.'

(Photographs omitted)