Many Americans don’t see the side of poverty that I witnessed in Mumbai. Everyday, I watched children playing in the chaotic streets, children who were dressed in outgrown, filthy T-shirts and shorts. Dirt and dust were the only things covering their delicate feet. Young children carried their infant siblings.
The children would immediately respond by putting their hands down. Their faces lit up as they gave their names. Then, I would open a bag of Chickadees cheddar snack crackers and give it to them. And, usually, they smiled and walked away.
Although many of the others on my trip were craving pizza by the end of our week, the food was one of the things I enjoyed most about India. But I tend to like strong flavors and spices. I’ve heard that most international food served in America is completely different from the native cuisine, but I did not sense much of a difference between American-Indian food and authentic Indian cuisine.
Because of religious restrictions, India is a vegetarian’s paradise. Restaurants are labeled either “veg” or “non-veg.” Even if the restaurant is “non-veg,” rest assured that there is always a vegetarian option. For example, I sampled the mildly spicy, lightly fried McVeggie at McDonald’s. Or at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the menu includes options such as the Veg Zinger, Veggie Snacker and Veg Rice and Strips.
A Change of Heart
The Indian women instructed us to take off our shoes, enter the illuminated room and sit on the large couch. We obeyed.
With the help of the women with the Aruna Project, we were able to converse and interact with the girls. Their eyes sparkled as they laughed. But we knew that behind those young faces, there was something different about their lives. Something we, as American women, could not understand.
After saying our goodbyes, we entered another room. And that is where my heart sank. The girls in this room told us they were 15 years old, but they were obviously closer to 10. I can still see the face of one child with round glasses and pigtails. She could not have been older than nine. How could anyone do this to his or her child? I thought. Each of these girls sees an average of seven men every night. Prostitution is the only life they know.
The sexual slave trade is like a cell, the women at the Aruna Project told us. (Many of the women who work at the Aruna Project were once prostitutes, and they can speak from experience.) When these little girls first enter the brothels, they are kept in chains and not allowed to see the sunlight for a few years. During those years, the girls are psychologically and physically abused. They are beaten down so that when they are finally released from the chains, they will not want to leave. As the girls get older, they are given more “freedom,” but if they go outside the brothel, they are accompanied by a pimp. Eventually, they are allowed to travel by themselves; however, they must pay.
We often wonder, Why don’t they just run away? As a part of the psychological abuse, the women begin to believe that the life of prostitution and sexual abuse is better than life on the streets. To those women, life on the street means having no food, shelter or money, all while still being sexually abused.
The Project not only rescues women, but it also reaches out to their children. Aruna has a partnership with the Salvation Army, which provides a home and schooling for the children of prostitutes. I had the chance to visit the Salvation Army and play with the children, ages five through 14, who study the core subjects, as well as English and the Bible. It warms my heart to know that these children are the future. Let’s just say that that was the best way to spend my last day in India, with hope.