Frontline World

INDIA - The Sex Workers, June 2004

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Synopsis of "The Sex Workers"

Mapping the Global AIDS Epidemic

Red-Light Reporting

Background, Government, AIDS in India

General AIDS, Media Coverage




Interview With Raney Aronson: Red-Light Reporting

Raney Aronson

FRONTLINE/World producer and reporter Raney Aronson has been tracking AIDS in India for 15 years (Photographer: Niels Alpert)
The last time producer and reporter Raney Aronson set off for India, she was covering traveling theater companies for the FRONTLINE/World segment "Starring Osama bin Laden." This time Aronson returns to the planet's second-most-populated country on an investigative journey, exposing India's AIDS crisis -- through the eyes of sex workers. FRONTLINE/World Web producer Angela Morgenstern interviewed Aronson by email about AIDS myths, filming in red-light districts and the prostitute who became an organizer.

How did you come to this story? Why did you decide to cover AIDS right now, and why did you choose India?

Sign outside a doctor's office

A private doctor's office in Kolkata, one of hundreds offering help for those affected by sexually transmitted diseases and impotency (Photographer: Niels Alpert)
About 15 years ago, I was a college student living in Benares, India. It was 1990, and on college campuses in America there was this explosion of activism and awareness about HIV/AIDS. I would always ask my classmates and my professors about the epidemic; without fail they all assumed it was a Westerners' disease. So since then I've been watching what has been happening to India with great dismay. The first time I filmed on the story of HIV/AIDS was in 2000, when I went with the support of the Pew Fellowships [now the International Reporting Project Fellowships] in International Journalism to four [Indian] cities and focused on women who were HIV-positive and living and working in the red-light districts.

You have a pretty unique personal background: Your father is a medical doctor, but your mother is interested in alternative medicine. How does this affect your view of the AIDS story?

On this my parents pretty much agree -- they advocate for prevention and education. In terms of treatment, so far there are no herbal remedies to treat HIV/AIDS ... so on the treatment side they'd pretty much agree as well.

Woman leaning on a balcony

A sex worker in a brothel in Ram Bagan, an area of Kolkata (Photographer: Niels Alpert)
Some have described Kamathipura, the red-light district in Bombay [also known as Mumbai], as the "fleshy center of India's HIV time bomb." Can you talk about sex workers and the conditions they face in Bombay?

For the most part, sex workers in Mumbai face what sex workers around the world face -- many of them are sold into prostitution as young girls and are not there by choice. However, Mumbai is an extreme by all accounts. Many of the brothels in Mumbai are run by local Indian mafia, so there is no way for advocacy groups to work with [the prostitutes] when it comes to prevention of HIV.

Woman lifting her skirt

A sex worker lifts her dress in Kamathipura, Mumbai's red-light district (Photographer: Jon Veleas)
Is prostitution legal in India?

No, it is not. In Kolkata [Calcutta], there is a sex worker union that is fighting for the right to be legal. They say this will help them fight HIV and AIDS because it will give them the proper rights they need to stand up for themselves.

What did men tell you about why they don't wear condoms?

This is only anecdotal. But most of the men I spoke to as they were visiting brothels said they saw no relationship between wearing a condom and preventing HIV and AIDS. So they saw no compelling reason to wear them. Although I've heard this is changing, especially in Kolkata.

In Sonagachi, Calcutta, the other red-light district you profile in your piece, the sex workers run the show, demanding that clients wear condoms in an effort to stop the spread of AIDS. Why is Calcutta so different from Bombay?

Woman smoking

A young sex worker, sitting on the street in Kamathipura, Mumbai's red-light district (Photographer: Katherine Patterson)
Well, I don't think all sex workers can say "no condoms, no sex," but if they're able to anywhere in India, it does seem to be more possible in Kolkata.

The two cities are so different it's hard to compare them, but many say that the major difference is that while Kolkata also has mafia-run brothels, they are more independent than those in Mumbai, and the sex worker unions have actually been able to make an impact. There's also a very different structure in terms of the sex industry. In Mumbai, most girls are sold into prostitution and are essentially slaves to the brothels. In Kolkata, many of the girls are born into it -- and while they have no choice but to be sex workers, there's a different level of respect.

What specifically do you think helps sex workers in Calcutta to stand their ground?

I do think that the fact that the sex worker unions have stood up for sex workers' rights helps .... Part of the unions' program is to help women save money and become more independent ... so with independence comes the ability to say no when a client wants to have sex without a condom.

India still has many taboos about sex, yet prostitution seems like an accepted part of life. Why is it such a huge phenomenon there?

What we've found is that most of the prostitution exists in the cities with the highest number of migrant workers. If you track where the red-light districts are booming over the last century, it's in the country's commercial centers -- Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. These cities are the temporary homes for millions of men who are far away from home and their wives. And although men from all classes and lines of work visit prostitutes, these migrant workers are really the bread and butter of the red-light areas. And... there's the grave risk that they'll spread it to their rural communities when they return home.

It's hard to know exactly why prostitution is such a booming industry. India is otherwise a very socially conservative country -- women and men marry very early, and divorce is rare. But I've noticed that whereas the women are expected to be monogamous, the men are not. I've also been told that even though the wives are not happy that their husbands visit sex workers, they feel powerless to stop them or even to question them about it.

Busy street at night

An aerial view of Kamathipura from the top floor of a brothel (Photographer: Katherine Patterson)
Your story takes viewers right inside red-light districts and brothels. What obstacles did you face during filming? Were prostitutes or their clients upset by having you nearby?

The prostitutes seemed fine; the clients, of course, were not fine!

It was incredibly difficult .... It took me months to actually gain access to the red-light district, and we only filmed in the district for three weeks -- much of that time was downtime as we negotiated further access. Actually filming inside the red-light district is very hard, especially at night. When we filmed in 2000, men threw things at us, and even with escorts we had trouble filming.

Four men looking at the camera

Men outside of a brothel in Kamathipura (Photographer: Katherine Patterson)
Were you scared? What did the cops think about you?

It's not an ideal situation, but it's okay -- and we spent most of our time filming during the day, so it worked out in the end. But filming at night is always the most challenging part of the shoot by far.

We were able to pretty much film inside the districts without the police knowing. We're on journalist visas, so we're legitimate, and we actually even told the Indian government where we planned to film -- but the police are notorious for shutting down film crews in the red-light district. In Mumbai, many people say that's because of their ties to the mafia, but, of course, I have no proof of that.

In India, it's traditionally taboo to talk about sex -- one of the reasons that education about HIV/AIDS is hard. How did you get women to open up on camera?

It's very difficult -- the subject of sex is taboo, and AIDS is really off limits. Many of the women told me they couldn't talk to each other about it but they could talk to me. That has much to do with the fact that I'm a foreigner, and they felt the same social rules and mores didn't apply [to me].

Raney Aronson

FRONTLINE/World producer and reporter Raney Aronson with one of Kolkata's sex workers (Photographer: Niels Alpert)
What do you think the sex workers thought about you?

They seemed to like that I was talking to them about their health and their future. I think many of them were wary, and worried. But a few of them actually made an effort to talk to me and explain what was going on.

Who was the most interesting woman you talked with?

I suppose a woman named Putul Singh in Kolkata. She was this woman who had given up the sex industry to work in the union full time. She welcomed me into her home and told me her story. Putul was sold into sex slavery by her first husband, but along the way was fortunate enough to meet up with the sex worker union. Through their help, she was actually able to leave the trade and work full time for them as a union member. After a few years doing this, she met her current husband, whom she married and lives happily with -- now no longer in the city, but in the country. I hope to follow up on her story. There aren't many happy stories in the red-light district, so she stood out to me.

Man smoking

A client at a brothel (Photographer: Katherine Patterson)
There's a scene in the piece that struck me: Men -- presumably clients -- are having a discussion, an open argument, with the sex workers. Can you talk about that scene and filming it?

It was incredible. It was a meeting I thought would be so mundane, but it turned out that the men and the women totally disagreed, and we just went with it -- filming every second of it: the women who were trying very much to explain how HIV spreads and the men who would hear nothing of it. A few of the men said that women spread AIDS and that the sex workers themselves had to be careful. They also believed that condoms did not prevent AIDS -- but being sanitary did. One man says, "If only the sex workers washed their hands!" Clearly a few of the men did not even know what AIDS meant, or what the disease was at all. The sex workers were literally yelling at the men trying to get them to understand. So it was this incredibly frank moment, which is very unusual in India when it comes to sex.

Woman holding a information sheet

A sex worker who works for the Sonagachi project in Kolkata, educating other sex workers about safe sex (Photographer: Katherine Patterson)
Can you imagine the Sonagachi AIDS Project working in Bombay? Is it a model to follow?

It is already being copied in Mumbai, but whether it has an impact is up in the air -- so far the [infection] rates in Mumbai are only getting worse.

What do you know about the increasing number of young girls from Nepal and Bangladesh being sold into sex work in India?

The hardest set of reliable statistics to track down concerns the sex trafficking of minor girls. All across India, these young girls are still the highest in demand for male clients, who'll pay top price for them; there's no sign that the numbers could diminish anytime soon without major government intervention. What experts believe is that India's sex industry is as lucrative as ever.... In Mumbai alone, the trafficking of minor girls is a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

Women seated in a circle

A group photo of the members of the ASHA project in Mumbai (Photographer: Niels Alpert)
What's the relationship between poverty and prostitution?

For me this has always been the ultimate question. There were very few sex workers whom I talked to who would actually choose this line of work if they felt they had a choice. And certainly, the trafficking of minors has almost everything to do with poverty. A member of my production team asked one of our experts while we were in India how families could possibly sell their own daughters into the sex industry. And he told us -- not to excuse the trafficking, but as a way to explain it -- " one can understand unless you're in a situation facing the starvation of your entire family: your wife, your sons, your other daughters."

Where are the women you feature in your film now?

Everyone is in the same place as in the film with the exception of Putul Singh who now lives with her husband in a small town outside of Kolkata and Anju Pawar who now has two children and no longer works for Asha, but serves as a consultant.

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