Guddi was only 11 years old when a neighbour persuaded her father to send her to Mumbai, with the promise of a well-paid job as a housemaid to help feed her family in her poor village in West Bengal in eastern India.
That promise was nothing but a pretext. The neighbour trafficked her to Mumbai’s red light district, and Guddi became one of the estimated 20,000 girls and women plying the streets of Kamathipura.
British photographer Hazel Thompson has spent the last decade investigating the sex trade in India after hearing that women in Mumbai were being held in cages “to break them” before making them work as prostitutes.
She described how prostitutes are indeed sometimes held in cages, without seeing daylight, for up to five years.
The only time they are let out is to service men, she told delegates at the second annual Trust Women conference, organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International New York Times.
“Over the years girls described the box cages to me, saying they couldn’t move in the space,” Thompson said. “These horrors really exist. Slavery is a reality.”
The very smallest of these cages, which she described as box cages, are too small for the girls to move in.
“My question is: ‘Would the men come to these brothels if they knew they were not paying for sex, but paying to rape a slave?’” Thompson said.
Guddi was not put in a cage but when when she arrived at the brothel, she was raped by a client and sustained injuries so severe that she spent three months in hospital.
Her story and that of other child prostitutes is documented in “Taken”, Thompson’s ebook published in October.
The book contains text, images and videos to convey a sense of what life is like in Kamathipura, established more than 150 years ago during colonial rule as a “comfort zone” for British soldiers.
Thompson first went to Kamathipura in 2002. With the help of Bombay Teen Challenge, a local charity, she went under cover, disguised as an aid worker.
Her fixer was a former street criminal himself and his mother a former prostitute, so he was able to help Thompson “unlock the secrets” of the district.
Thompson found out that the cages were originally built to protect the girls, who were recruited as prostitutes by the British during the colonial period.
The police not only do nothing to stop the trafficking but regularly accept bribes from the brothel owners and give them warnings of raids, Thompson said.
“It is completely a lawless place,” she said, “which the police continue to allow to thrive.”
Thompson last saw Guddi in April. Thompson begged her to leave, telling her that otherwise she would die there.
“But my life was taken when they brought me here,” Guddi told her.
Thompson’s ebook, Taken, is available on the iTunes store.