Almost all the 3,500-odd sex workers confined to the 96 brothels in the Capital’s red-light area on Shraddhanand Marg — earlier referred to as G.B. Road — have a tale of exploitation and human rights abuses to narrate.

The government and the police are far from taking action against brothel owners. The sex workers say they are “treated as the Capital’s shame — brushed under the carpet, only to be remembered when required”.

“Poverty and the promise of a decent life for our children keeps us here,” says Savitri at a government-aided health care centre in Lahori Gate.

She and a group of other workers came to the centre at 4.30 p.m., previously an impossible time for the women to be out of the brothels.

“Four o’ clock onwards clients start coming in, but these days the steep price rise has hit the business hard. This is the first time in 10 years that I haven’t had a customer in four days,” says a nervous-looking Mamta (36). She came to Delhi from Andhra Pradesh a decade ago and has three daughters and elderly parents to support back home.

“I am a mother of three young girls who I have left behind in Andhra Pradesh with my old parents. I know how ruthless life can be. Life here on G.B. Road is only about making money,” she says.

Lata came to Delhi when she was only five years old and was pushed into the flesh trade at the young age of 11. She has no hope of things changing for the better any time soon. “During elections, politicians and parties of all colour and shape come to meet us promising the world and more. We are forgotten immediately after the circus is over,” quips the 48-year-old.

Lata is angry that the violence and torture sex workers are subjected to and the lives they are forced to lead go unnoticed. “The sex workers and their children here have no rights. Be it access to nutritious and assured supply of food, security (financial/physical), education and health care facilities, crèche for our children, schools or playground, none is available. There are no fixed working hours and social interaction with the outside world is almost non-existent. We are discriminated against on the grounds of our profession.”

“We are confined to our rooms for years at a stretch. We are not allowed to step out even to see a doctor. It is only when the brothel owners are sure that we have nowhere else to go that they allow us out. Where have the law, politicians and police been all these years?” Lata asks.

Today she lives on the streets after being thrown out by her brothel owner. “I am old now and don’t bring in any business,” she says. “Now I have no rights as a worker or as a human being. Worse, I have no social security. Sex trade is a reality and because it is not legalised we are exploited at all levels.”

Sex workers across the country have long been demanding that their trade be legalised so that the women can have better quality of life.

Khairati Lal Bhola (85) of the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, a non-government organisation that works with sex workers across the country, says: “There are 1,100 red light areas in India and 23 lakh sex workers with 54 lakh children living there. The income of these sex workers is shared by kothamalins, touts, police and others in the system. The sex worker gets only 25 per cent of her income and that too is often spent on medical treatment and rations. Almost all of them lead a hand-to-mouth existence. If sex trade is legalised, then there can be a greater chance for these women to earn more.”

Previously, the Supreme Court constituted a committee of legal experts to look into the cause of sex trade and suggest ways to bring this population into the national mainstream. “So far there has been no concrete outcome from this group,” Mr. Bhola says.

He says commercial sexual exploitation today is not purely brothel-based but has spread everywhere – residential areas, hotels and clubs. “With the advancement of technologies and changing global scenario, sex trade has emerged in diverse forms.”

Rishi Kant of non-government organisation Shakti Vahini, which works in the area of anti-trafficking, said: “The steep rise in human trafficking is because of several social factors including poverty, illiteracy, natural calamities and rapid globalisation. Human trafficking works strictly on demand and supply and is a basket of crime which violates several laws and rights. Currently there is no authentic database for human trafficking and it continues to be difficult to ascertain how many women are affected. Also corruption and strong inter-State/country network of suppliers and demand makes the circle very vicious and unbreakable for women.”

With the Delhi High Court stepping in earlier this week and seeking “information on the number of rescue operations undertaken, the total number of girls rescued and how many FIRs have been lodged so far,” many believe things will change while others remain sceptical. Mamta says: “I truly hope that the direction to the Delhi Police to also take action against those not registering FIRs following rescue of girls would bring about a real change.”

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