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Sparking Change in India’s Largest Red Light District (Part II)

Lisa Jones | May 19, 2014
Gitanjali (right) with children and volunteers

Working within the System

Most of us couldn’t imagine having tea with a brothel owner, let alone spending hours helping him or her to learn and practice English. While I was in awe of how Gitanjali gained the women’s trust, what shocked me the most was the way she spoke of her relationship with the brothel owners. She said matter-of-factly, “There are 70 brothels on GB Road. Kat-Katha is in 11 of them. Our goal is to be in every brothel.”

“Many of the brothel owners are actually former sex workers themselves,” she explained. “You have to find out what matters to them and establish their trust.” When visiting to distribute condoms, Gitanjali made small talk. Brothel owners were leery of large, meddling NGOs, but Gitanjali wasn’t perceived as a threat—how could one girl disrupt a system that became stronger with each generation it oppressed?

By building their trust, listening to their daily complaints, and indulging their gossip about other brothel owners, Gitanjali was able to make the case for allowing women to participate in her activities. She explained to the owners that if they would allow the women some time to spend on activities they enjoyed, like learning to stitch or make jewelry, practicing English, and dancing, they would be smarter, happier, and healthier. According to Gitanjali, there is a hierarchy of status among the brothels on GB Road—owners saw that investing in the lives of sex workers and their families would bolster their brothel’s reputation in the competitive community.

Other brothel owners were more interested in their status as individuals. They wanted to be seen as sophisticated and educated, and one way to do that was to learn English. They agreed to let Gitanjali teach the women English and other skills if they too could learn. Gitanjali saw brothel owners not as “evil” or “the other,” but merely humans with their own fears and motivations. She saw that stepping toward her enemies rather than away brought her closer to overcoming the obstacle they embodied.

Of the women Gitanjali works with, very few will end up leaving GB Road. Whether they aspire to lead a new life elsewhere, or simply wish to be healthier and happier on GB Road, each day they work within a system, a set of rules that govern their lives. But each time they read a book and learn more about their rights, each time they have a chance to interact with women from other brothels, they increase their understanding of the system. They become educated, empowered, and confident, eventually changing the reality of sex workers on GB Road and their ability to choose if they engage in sex work. They change the system from within.

While it is often our natural reaction to distance ourselves from the institutions we seek to change, social entrepreneurs like Gitanjali teach us that institutions are really just made up of individuals—and no individual is so far removed from the human experience that they cannot be influenced at some level. By investing time in understanding their unfamiliar value system, what keeps them up at night, we can use these unlikely partners to our advantage—often, without them even noticing.  

While large, resource-heavy NGOs lamented from a distance that the brothel doors were locked, Gitanjali knocked, and asked to be let in. Once she navigated her way up the narrow stairs and into the hearts of the women who lived there, Gitanjali did not seek to rescue each woman from the sex trade institution. She worked within the system to empower women to live meaningful lives regardless of the road they live on. She continues to work within the system to ensure every child has access to an education, even if the classroom is in a brothel. She works within the system to give women a chance to work their way out of it.

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