The first time I went to the red-light area was in June 2014. I was in Nagpur to meet Greg, Freedom Firm’s National Director, and was interviewing for a position with the organisation. During the course of the interview Greg asked me if I would like to visit the red-light area and get a feel of the work. I couldn’t say no; not just because I was in the middle of a job interview, but because I needed to know  what I’d be getting myself into.

Ganga – Jamuna, Nagpur’s red-light area, has been around for decades, possibly even centuries. Some believe it to be as old as Nagpur itself. Before going to the red-light area, Greg and a senior Freedom Firm investigator gave me an idea about what to expect and the precautions to be taken while I was there. But the truth is, no amount of prepping could prepare me for what I was about to experience.

I arrived in the area expecting to be merely an observer, ready to witness first-hand how undercover investigations are done. I was strolling down one of the narrow lanes, trying to look casual, when she saw me. She must have been in her late twenties; quite old for this kind of work considering that Ganga-Jamuna is filled with minor girls as young as 12-13 years old. She beckoned me to follow her into her room, saying that she hadn’t had any customers that day and that she had to pay rent. I looked around, unsure of what to do, but she seemed to have already decided that I was going to be her customer. She quickly grabbed me by my shirt, pulled me into the brothel and shut the door behind her.

As soon as we were inside, she started pressing herself up against me and tried taking off my shirt and shoes. She asked me to take off my trousers. I stared at her horrified. I had never encountered such brazen boldness. And I didn’t know what to do to stop it. Everything was happening so fast. I prayed desperately for a way to extricate myself from this situation and leave the brothel.

When I adamantly refused, she started to check my pockets. I realised that she was looking for money. She seemed temporarily satisfied when she found my wallet, but this quickly turned to dismay when she found only Rs. 50-60 ($1) in it. Seeing as that would never cover her rent, she demanded more money. When I told her that I didn’t have money to give her, she grabbed my mobile and bike keys and refused to return them until I gave her more money.

I eventually gave her more money only to suddenly find her all over me. Clearly she thought she now had to give me my money’s worth. I pushed her aside gently and tried to talk to her instead. I wanted to find out her story – who was she? How was it that she ended up in the dark confines of Nagpur’s brothels? If she had the chance to leave, would she take it?

I managed to convince her that I wasn’t interested in having sex and just wanted to talk. I learnt that her boyfriend had abandoned her while she was pregnant with his second child. Orphaned and a teenage mother of 2 children, she had no one to turn to but her grandmother. Her grandmother seemed to have viewed her as a burden and decided to sell her. She told me that she had been in prostitution for the last 10 years.  Even if she could leave, where would she go?

I later learnt that there are entire communities in India where girls are brought up to be sold into the sex-trade at a very young age. In a country where female foeticide and female infanticide are routinely practiced, these communities celebrate the births of daughters because they live off the profits made from auctioning off their daughters. The young girls grow up with the ingrained belief that prostitution is their only future and the accepted norm. While I do not know the exact history of this girl and if she was from one of these communities, it may well be that she was.

Relief washed over me when she eventually got bored of chatting and returned my keys and phone. Ironically, when I walked out of the brothel, I felt like I was the one being freed!

This experience and the many more that were to follow changed the way I viewed prostitution. These young girls weren’t high-class escorts who had chosen this profession and lived a luxurious life. No, these were children and young women who had been turned into commodities by either circumstances or traffickers profiteering from their helplessness. Having been brainwashed as children, betrayed by family, and exposed to a life of abuse, the fight for survival had hardened them and made them view prostitution through a warped lens, seeing it as normal and acceptable. Only long-term counselling and aftercare support would enable them to understand what had been done to them and the life that had been stolen from them. And it would be for us to help them, to rescue them from despairing darkness, and to stand with them in the fight for justice.