Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Adventures in Delhi’s Largest Prostitution District

Part of the Human Trafficking Students' series on HTP

By John Christopher Frame

We know it as a curse word—the worst one you can think of. But to this man, it was just a word for doing business. This stranger randomly approached me and repeated the word twice, perhaps to ensure I heard him, before he rattled off words that were mostly unintelligible.

“Beautiful call girl,” I half-understood, as the man using a dull gray blanket to keep warm on this chilly January afternoon listed as fast as he could the regions and areas the girls were from. “16 to 20 years old. Kashmir, Nepal…” The list went on. “1000 Rupees for an hour.” That’s about $20. Did he say two girls? I continued walking. He followed me.

Of all the pimps I met that day he looked the poorest, and was the most persistent. They all were persistent, though, assuming I wanted something that only a few dollars could “buy.” Face it. Why else would the only white guy in the whole vicinity be walking up and down the hottest red light district in Delhi?

But I was exactly where I wanted to be. I had heard so much about sex trafficking in India and had been learning about it in seminars at school, that I needed to see it for myself. And it was only a short walk from my hotel.

I walked down the busy street divided by a two-foot wide concrete boulevard. The buildings on both sides of the road were plastered with large business signs and billboards, some in Hindi, some in English. The left side of the street was lined with closed storefronts in dilapidated buildings, parked auto rickshaws, and trash. The right side had a longer stretch of old, bland-looking buildings with hardware stores on the ground level, brothels on the top. Because it was Sunday, nearly all the businesses were closed, securely shut with large metal garage doors that created a cold, dangerous feel to the area. The lack of business activities on the ground level belied the activities going on in the brothels above, easily accessed by unencumbered stairways, some of which had special lighting or were painted pink.

Men eagerly went up the stairways like cats pursuing their prey. A group of five or six young and jovial men piled down one stairway chatting amongst themselves and smiling. One adjusted his pants as he scurried with his friends down the covered sidewalk next to the closed-up shops. I assumed they were locals; maybe they were regulars.

A variety of pimps offered me a variety of women. Most of the dozen or so women I saw standing outside near the stairways looked like they were in their thirties and forties and were dressed in traditional Indian attire. However, the pimps were offering me girls and younger women.

I had been in Delhi for twenty days. Many men on the streets had tried to get my attention with toys and gadgets to buy. Countless men had asked me to ride their rickshaws. “Oh, America. Very good country,” business owners or travel agents trying to sell me a tour or taxi service would say in a thick accent after they asked me where I was from.

Interestingly, I found the pimps even more anxious and zealous about selling their “products” that help them survive—sex from girls and women—than the men who tried to sell me merchandise or transportation services I was not interested in. “Please come, son,” one pimp in his twenties pleaded with me. He wanted me to just look at the girls, and if I did not like them, I could just pay him a few cents. Then he said I would not have to pay him anything for just looking.

When the pimps solicited my business, they concentrated on what they were offering, not who they were offering. They offered the girls and women to me as products, not as people; as impersonal utilities, not individuals. The pimps never told me the names of the girls and women. Of course they did not tell me about their families who loved them, or the fact that maybe no one loved them. No, all of those considerations were left out of the sales pitches. Relationship with a “product” always has the potential to disrupt its sale.

I met one man who did not try to sell me anything. After I told him where I was from, he shook my hand and said, “Oh, my friend,” putting his hand on his heart. He was obviously fond of the USA, although I was suspicious that he was a pimp trying to make a sale, too. I later conjectured that he was not. Yet our conversation could have fooled any eavesdropper:

“You married?” he asked me.
“No,” I replied.
“You come for prostitution?”
“No, I’m just taking a walk,” I responded.
We met again moments later. He warned me not to go down the road any farther.
“Bad element,” he said. “Bad element.”

But I was undeterred and continued walking. It was interesting that he was so accustomed to prostitution in his neighborhood that, in his mind, it was normalized; perhaps something he even appreciated as a local commodity.

It is startling that human beings today, just like in days of old, are treated as property—as slaves. And it is sad that some women may even think of themselves as commodities. But that is not because they want to. My guess is that the woman who offered me “fucking” for 500 Rupees (about $10), or the one in bright yellow who nodded at me from the window of her second floor brothel, probably would not be offering themselves on the sex market if they were given another lot in life. A chance. An opportunity.

A former Boston prostitute told me once how hard it is for women to get out of the prostitution business. I imagine that the struggle is even greater among the poor in India.

Walking through the red light district in Delhi contextualized the sex trade for me. Even though it was a Sunday afternoon and only a few women were outside, I saw the sex trade up close. I met pimps who were desperate for business. I observed gleeful young men who had just enjoyed their time in a brothel. I talked to women who were willing to sell their bodies to me for a few bucks. I inferred from a man in the neighborhood that this enterprise was, dare I say, appreciated.

I spotted a police officer near the red light district and chatted with him. His outlook was grim. Prostitution exists “in every country, in every place,” he told me. Sexual exploitation is especially disturbing when its ubiquity normalizes its existence, and when its existence negates any consideration of its demeaning and illegal status.

I had traveled to Delhi at my own expense to work on a project involving food and poverty issues for a class back at Harvard. Given that a main research interest of mine is human trafficking, I stayed in India beyond the time needed for my project and visited The Emancipation Network in Kolkata, an organization that supports women who were, or are susceptible to being sexually exploited. They create jobs for women and teach them how to make items such as note cards, bags, wallets, and jewelry. Through empowerment and education they seek to help rehabilitate women so they may more easily reintegrate into society.

I had learned about sex trafficking from Restore International’s founder, Bob Goff, who came to my alma mater, Anderson University, two years before I went to India. He spoke to a captive audience about sex trafficking and the work that he and his organization had been doing to prosecute people who were exploiting women in Southeast Asia. I was impressed and inspired by Mr. Goff’s work in matters of fighting injustice around the world. He was making a difference. Could I ever do anything that would make a difference like him?

Let’s be honest. It is daunting to think about how we can be part of the solution to such a formidable and nefarious crime like sex trafficking. We wonder, How and where do I begin?

I propose two launching points: education and relationship. Learning about the realities of injustice and world atrocities is a natural first step to begin learning how to get involved in stopping them. And this educational process can be enriched if it is rooted in relationships with those for whom we wish to offer support and advocacy.

Building relationships with certain marginalized people, though, is not always practical, especially those who live in far away lands. There may be people in our local communities, though, who are victims of sexual exploitation from whom we can learn. Relationship contextualizes injustice because we learn not just about the what, we learn about the who.

I am thankful for my time at The Emancipation Network. It was there that I met women and children who deal every day with memories from, and issues involving, the sex trade. I ate with my new friends. I laughed with them. I heard about their struggles. They taught me Bengali words. I saw the beautiful goods they made and the sewing room where they made them. We made bracelets together and I tied the poorly made bracelet I had spent two hours making onto the wrist of a young woman who tied her beautifully made bracelet onto mine. Building relationships with those who have been de-humanized is an important component to making a difference in their lives and learning where we best fit in.

Similarly, it is also helpful to build relationships with others who are interested in learning about human trafficking issues. There is joy in meeting others who share similar concerns about important matters in the world. They may know about resources that can benefit our own understanding of injustice. They become an important community with whom we learn, serve, and grow together.

The world is filled with de-humanized women and the people who de-humanize them. But it is also filled with people who are interested in working to bring resolution to a problem that seems to have no resolution. Let’s meet one another. Let’s join forces. Let’s pursue education and build relationships as we begin our work to fight injustice.


John is a recent graduate of the Divinity School at Harvard University. Beginning October 2010 he will be pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Policy at the University of Oxford, researching how religious organizations are seeking to reduce the incidence of sex trafficking among vulnerable females in India.


  1. John, we are working with a small team of Christians now in India, setting up a safety net, using new media. Contact us at if you would like to learn more and join us! Marcia Lynn Eichenauer, Ceo, Founder, Christ King Of kings Network

  2. Anonymous7:43 AM

    hi john
    have u not heard the name devdasi in india.its the religious ppl.the heads of indian temples that started and are still taking a big parts in making woman prostitutes.......pls do something for them

  3. Hey John...I feel better seeing that a guy is so concerned about the plight of the women in India. I was doing a research on women trafficking and sexual exploitation in India and i emphasized more on Delhi, and knowing what all is happening..i feel so angry and helpless at the same time I want to do something for the women trapped in this hideous business but i am unable to do so. Be it the society or the religion or say culture or tradition...everything aims at making life for women disgusting. This patriarchal society is so concerned with their sexual pleasure and money, that they have failed to act as humans and instead act like...i don't know what, DON'T WANT TO INSULT ANIMALS BY SAYING THEY HAVE TURNED INTO ANIMALS.
    I am just a college student but i will surely take it up in future and work against sexual exploitation.
    Anyways, hope you get to do something about it too.

  4. Oh..n i will like to get in contact with u.

  5. Anonymous2:13 PM

    i love you

  6. Hey John,

    You have done a really good research. I am a Govt Official in India, do let me know if I could of some help.

  7. ye ek tarha ka paap hai isko roooooooooko