2 Sep 2014

Caged until ‘broken’: life for Mumbai’s prostitutes

Channel 4 News gains exclusive access to brothels in Mumbai, where trafficked girls are kept in cages like slaves to stop them running away – and only allowed out to have sex with customers.

It was pitch black as I stumbled through the labyrinth of the dark corridors of a large brothel house in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s notorious red-light district, writes Photo-journalist Hazel Thompson.

I’d been told to hide my camera under my scarf, not to speak and not to make eye contact with anyone. With my hand I felt the filthy walls dripping with condensation from the intense heat.

Eventually, guided by my Indian colleague, I came to a dimly lit door at the end of a corridor. Like a prison guard, an ageing madam came to the front of the brothel and unlocked the large padlock with her set of keys.

I was taken into the reception area of the brothel, the space where the customers are taken to select a girl. On the ceiling I could see a small, open trap door. The madam disappeared, and I climbed up a wooden ladder and pushed through the small gap.

The charity Jubilee Campaign helps rescue and rehabiltiate girls and women from Mumbai's red light district.


Suddenly I was face to face with a “box cage”. I knew what I was looking at. The prostitutes I had met over years of investigating the sex industry in Mumbai had told me of the caged rooms and boxes they had been held in for months, even years. They told me they were held in the cages when they were first trafficked to the red-light district.

The madams would keep the girls like slaves in the cages until they were “broken” – the aim being to stop them running away. The girls told me they never knew if it was night or day when they were in the cages. They were only taken out to eat or to be given to a customer for sex. For years I had wanted to photograph these cages, to prove that these places actually exist.

I was returning to Kamathipura 11 years after my first visit – ostensibly as an aid worker with the charity Jubilee Campaign. In reality I was using the access I got to make a photographic and video record of a world that shouldn’t be allowed to exist.

I did a lot of hiding in the back of brothels and on the roofs of the red light buildings, trying to chronicle the lives of girls trafficked and tricked into sex slavery.


Before 2002, when I first came to India to photograph children born into this vile industry, I knew nothing about trafficking. Those early days of visiting Kamathipura changed my life, and I’ve been unable to let this story go.

I was unable to let go because of girls such as Guddi, the prostitute in this film. I first met Guddi (pictured above) while I was shooting on 14th Lane, in the heart of Kamathipura. I was sheltering from the intense summer heat in a clinic run by a charity, when Guddi came rushing through the door. She was distraught and crying after being beaten by one of the gangsters who run the district.

Guddi was just 11 years old when she was trafficked from the countryside. She was lured directly from the protection of her parents and 13 other siblings, from her home in a poor village near Kolkata.

Her trafficker was her mother’s friend, she says, who had lived next door to her family home all her life. She promised Guddi well-paid domestic work in Mumbai that would help feed her struggling family.


Guddi’s life dramatically changed as soon as she arrived in Mumbai. She was taken to Kamathipura, where she was dragged into a brothel on 14th Lane and raped by a paedophile customer, while the madam and her daughter held her down by her arms and legs to restrain her.

The customer raped her so violently that she was hospitalised for three months. They raped her to break her, she says. She was then held, not knowing if it was day or night, in a caged room in a brothel house on 14th Lane – her tale sadly echoed by many of the girls I met and interviewed over the past 11 years.

Over those years, I have watched and photographed thousands of men visiting Kamathipura – they say they are looking for pleasure. But a red-light district is not a place of pleasure. It is a place of pain.

I have often wondered if men would come and have sex with these women if they knew their true stories, like Guddi’s, if they knew how the girls have been trafficked, and that actually they are paying to rape a girl who is a sex slave.