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Nearly three decades ago, as a student of social work, I walked into one of the red light districts in Mumbai. I saw three generations all sitting at the same time and the customers coming, all watching and waiting to decide whether tonight they’re going to have sex with the 14-year-old, her mother or her grandmother.

What I was witnessing was a cycle of abuse and exploitation that continues generation after generation. As children, these girls spent their nights in the brothels where their mothers were sold. Without a safe space and no one to watch them, they are constantly exposed to sex, drugs, alcohol and physical and sexual violence. Girls who live in red light areas are often groomed to enter the sex trade at a very young age. Boys are also groomed to be in the business, usually through ancillary activities such as pimping. In this way the cycle of intergenerational trafficking continues.

In order to break the cycle, the children needed a safe, secure environment where they could stay during business hours. Prerana started as a night shelter 28 years ago to provide just that. We have since expanded, providing shelter, education, health and empowerment services through centers within red light districts.

Engaging boys and men

Boys and men are caught in this cycle too, and so we involve them in youth group programming, community outreach and in our advocacy campaigns. For example, in our children’s collective, which includes boys, we discuss issues like protection and participation, and train the children in gender and violence against children issues.

It’s working. Since we started we have had boys come and warn us that a young girl will be taken out of school to be married – increasing her likelihood of experiencing at least one form of abuse. In other cases boys will inform us about girls who should be moved to a safe shelter because their mothers are ill – most likely due to HIV related infection – and the girls are at higher risk of being withdrawn from school and sold to a trafficker.

A call to action

In order to break the cycle, not just in Mumbai but across the world, a key tool would be the creation of a web portal that would serve as a one-stop shop for all information related to gender-based violence. Women and girls, teachers, lawyers, law enforcement and the judiciary should be able to get their questions answered through country-specific portals. There is a huge need to document and share global best practices.

Second, we need to raise resources to provide quality services to train service providers, law enforcement, parliamentarians and the public about these issues. We must encourage and support organizations aimed at preventing gender based violence that are testing innovative pilot projects and action-oriented research.

Since 1986 my work has grown to encompass many areas, but I still think about the first girl who, after completing her education, came back to the red light district to take her mother out of sexual slavery. She proved that we can break the cycle. 

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