The Sisters of Kamathipura
In South Mumbai’s red-light districts there are an estimated 100,000 brothel-based sex workers, most of whom are not there voluntarily. A high proportion of the women and girls working there have been sold into sex work, sometimes by a relative or trusted family friend; others are born into sex work.
Life within the red-light districts is incredibly difficult: poverty, drug & alcohol addiction, gambling, and violence are an everyday reality. These women live on the edge of society, frowned upon and ignored. It is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of India’s sex workers are HIV positive. Due to a lack of education and severe poverty many sex workers continue to have unprotected sex.
I began my photo-essay on a group of sex workers based in South Mumbai, who work with SAI, a small NGO, on the Didi (Sister) Project. The women take what they learn about HIV, STI’s, and human rights, back into their communities and teach others about the importance of condoms and HIV testing. Working on the Didi Project has changed these women’s lives, they feel empowered, have a sense of self respect as well as respect within the community; it has given some of them a reason to live, a purpose.
After getting to know some of the women I wanted to make my project more personal, to tell their story: as a sister, a mother, a daughter; as a woman, not just a sex worker. I have been working on images that portray intimacy, femininity and tenderness as well as showing the often-brutal reality of life within the brothels. I want the viewer to feel they can understand these women and gain an insight into their lives, rather than presenting them with another generic set of sex pictures.
I undertook a number of portrait shoots with some of the women whom I have been working with, as well as others who also work with SAI. I set up a black background outside the NGO offices so as to shoot somewhere familiar to the women, but away from the brothels. The women chose what to wear and helped each other with their makeup and poses. I had no influence over what they wore, or how they posed, as I wanted this to be entirely their own ideas and expression of beauty, sexuality, and identity.
The group of women the project focuses on include Hajra, who is HIV positive and severely scarred after being set alight with a kerosene lamp, she is also generous, strong, determined and has an amazing sense of humor. Jyoti is 19 and lives in her mother’s brothel, she would like 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 make-up. 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, loved her work as a Peer Educator, she died from septicemia after suffering eighty-five percent burns to her body having been covered in kerosene and set alight. The police report states the cause of death as suicide but her family adamantly believe she was murdered by her partner.
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, for many, there is no escape.
Violence against female sex workers in India is a significant problem, however the official statistics are non-existent as incidents are rarely reported to the authorities, and when they are, very little is done in response.