Interview with Dr Gilada
by Sharon Maas
This interview was conducted in 2004, in conjunction with the publication of my novel Peacocks Dancing (later republished as Lost Daughter of India.)
An old story that never grows old. How can men do this?
Sharon: Your crusade against child prostitution in India began with the rescue of Tulasa in 1982; back then, the story made front page headlines in India and Nepal, and opened a viper’s nest of horrors. Who was Tulasa?
Dr I.G.: Tulasa was a 12 year old Nepali girl who in 1982 was kidnapped from her village and sold into prostitution in Bombay. She was systematically raped to make her fit for the trade and then forced to entertain an average of 8 clients a day. I met her 10 months later in the Bombay hospital where I was working at the time. Her tiny body –the body of a child – was completely broken. She was suffering from three types of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), genital warts and brain tuberculosis which left her spastic and wheelchair-bound, and finally killed her. The story she told was horrific. The People’s Health Organisation embarked on a full-fledged “Save Tulasa” campaign, and with the support of the media managed to rescue her. We located her father – her mother had died shortly after her disappearance – and sent her home.
Sharon: You say with the support of the media. Didn’t the police help in the rescue campaign?
Dr. I.G.: Police collusion with the flesh trade was a high point of Tulasa’s revelations. Even today the police and the politicians are in collaboration with the pimp – the profit is huge. Back then, the uproar generated by her story forced the police into action, and in no time 32 persons involved were arrested, including the three brothel owners Tulasa had worked for. The police knew exactly what was going on, and only stepped in when forced to do so. It took them 18 months to ascertain her age and three years to file a charge. And only last January, 18 years later, did the case finally to come to trial. The police were given a month to produce her in court. Only then did we receive a message that Tulasa died two years ago. Meanwhile, her abusers have been running free.
Sharon: After her rescue didn’t she find peace in Nepal?
Dr I.G.: No. At first there had been an outpouring of sympathy for her – offers of adoption and marriage, an invitation to Switzerland, gifts of money and medicine. None of it came to much. Tulasa was rejected by her father’s second wife, and moved into a home. Her father avoided her to keep the family peace. She was in constant pain, but worst of all was the feeling that nobody loved her, that she had been used and abused and finally discarded like a piece of rubbish.
Sharon: Is Tulasa’s story typical of child prostitutes in India’s megacities?
Dr I.G.: Yes. Soon after Tulasa’s rescue the air was abuzz with innumerable stories of girls who were caged and treated like animals in Kamathipura, Bombay’s infamous red-light district. They narrated harrowing tales of torture and abuse. The PHO has rescued more than 130 girls to date directly, and more than 3000 indirectly. The youngest girl we rescued was only eight years old.
Sharon: Has the trafficking with children in Bombay improved since Tulasa’s rescue?
Dr I.G.: Horrifying as it is, Tulasa’s case has had some positive fallout. The episode threw light on the appalling practice of child prostitution - the public outcry was tremendous. As a result, the governments of India and Nepal signed a treaty for the rescue and repatriation of Nepali girls from Indian brothels. In India the sentence for trafficking with minors has been hiked from 7 to 13 years. Child prostitution has been reduced by about 40%.
Sharon: How do children end up as prostitutes in India?
Dr I.G.: About 40% of all child prostitutes have been abducted from villages all over India and Nepal. They are lured away on some pretext or the other: going to movies, cities, temples, making them film stars, lucrative job opportunities, marriage. Another major source of child prostitutes is the Devadasi system. Every year thousands of girls are ceremoniously dedicated to the Goddess „Yellamma”. They are sold to the highest bidder and after a brief period of concubinage turned over to the urban brothels. The system is officially banned but continues to operate clandestinely, contributing up to 20% of urban child prostitutes.
A small proportion of child prostitutes come to the trade after being raped. Others run away from incestuous relationships with family members. Yet others are daughters of prostitutes, who have no other option than to follow their mothers’ profession.
Sharon: What are their living conditions in the brothels?
Dr I.G.: The girls live in unimaginable squalor, usually about 10-12 girls in a small room. The brothels are foul, stinking holes, often overrun with rats and vermin. They eat from filthy cafeterias or vendors, and have to pay twice the price for their food and other necessary commodities. Most of them are forced to abuse drugs, alcohol and nicotine. 75 to 80 percent of the girls suffer from STDs. More than half of the girls are HIV infected.
Sharon:. What is the PHO doing to deal with the situation?
Dr I.G.: The prevention of child prostitution and the containment of AIDS are two of our main aims. We have a Mobile Clinic – donated by a German organisation - and go out into red-light districts several times a week with a team consisting of health workers, social workers, and ex-sex-workers. We distribute free condoms, and provide medical check-ups and counselling on specific health or social problems. In many of the brothels there are prostitutes working for us, helping to educate others so as to prevent the spread of AIDS. We have had considerable success in this area.
Sharon: What success have you had with your other main aim, the prevention of child prostitution? Is it possible to rehabilitate the children you rescue from the brothels?Dr I.G.: At the moment, the emphasis is on prevention rather than rescue. The problem is, where can they go after they have been rescued, or when they contract AIDS and are thrown out of the brothels? They are often rejected by heir communities and families and cannot return home, and we simply do not have the facilities to look after these girls. We have a 25 acre plot of land on the Bombay-Goa highway, where we had planned to build a home for rescued children, a training centre and a school – but we simply don’t have the funds to carry on. The PHO operates on a shoestring.