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Hope and life in the red-light district of Mumbai

The Salvation Army's Jeevan Asha project offers life and hope to desperate women and children in the red-light district of Mumbai, India.

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise internationally. To be able to expand its Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Response (MSHTR), The Salvation Army has established Communities of Practice by geographic zone, intended to equip people in every geographic unit where The Salvation Army has a presence, to engage in this battle.

Walking down a narrow lane in Mumbai, India, you notice women in brightly coloured saris and heavily made-up faces, milling around in the street. The drudgery of everyday life spills into the lane since the concrete rooms they rent inside are too small for cooking or sharing a meal. This is a morning in one of Mumbai’s oldest and most notorious red-light districts.

You step into a drop-in centre, run by The Salvation Army, filled with neatly groomed children all in school uniforms. The children receive an early lunch after the centre’s morning activities before they head off to school in the afternoon. The walls are decorated with their artwork, a photo board of previous activities and events, reminders of their rights as children, and daily affirmations.

Many of these children have been born into the red-light district, often to mothers who have been trafficked and have little choice but to continue the trade.

The Salvation Army project here is called ‘Jeevan Asha’ – Jeevan is mostly translated to ‘life’, and Asha means ‘hope’.

In addition to the drop-in centre, this recently licenced building is also used as a night shelter for boys who live in the red-light district. This night shelter is critical to safety as an alternative to wandering the streets or sleeping outside, while their mothers are working.

The third main component of this Jeevan Asha project is outreach to the women living and working in the red-light district. This is a long-established area with women who may have been working there for decades. Many share anecdotal stories of becoming victims of trafficking as young teenagers.

This red-light district is in the heart of Mumbai city, which boasts the most expensive real estate in India. The rent for a small room is exorbitant and prevents many women from making headway on debt that keeps them enslaved. The high cost of real estate increases eviction and dispersal rates of workers as the high-density red-light district is slowly being demolished and turned into offices and apartments. This leaves them without anywhere to go, compounding their existing vulnerabilities.

These women often have little or no social support outside of other women in the red-light district. Meagre financial resources, few alternative options for employment, and little likelihood of being allowed to rent or lease a different place leave them with limited future prospects.

The need is great for outreach to these women, to work alongside them, to find alternative means of survival and places to stay to live a ‘Jeevan Asha’ – life of hope.

This is a story of one Salvation Army project, working to combat the atrocities of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. The magnitude of human trafficking and modern slavery is approximately 50 million people globally, up nearly 20 per cent over five years.

This story is reprinted from The Salvation Army World Service Office annual report 2023. To download this report, click here.


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