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Hallways of a houseboat Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir

Houseboats are common in the city of Srinagar, which has been called the ‘Vienna of the East.’ Some have also been used as a floating location for secret brothels. This photo shows the inside hallway of a houseboat on Dal Lake. Image: Jenny Mackness

He pushed an envelope and a cell-phone into my hands and left, shared Heena describing her first ‘official business’ encounter with her pimp. Inside the envelope there was a cheque [bank note] for five lakh rupees, equal to $8,953.64 USD, along with two airline tickets from Srinagar to New Delhi for her mother and herself.

My mother’s appointment with doctors and even our lodging in New Dehli had already been fixed, outlined Heena. Heena’s pimp called her the next morning with instructions. A driver will come to pick you and your mother up and will drop you at the airport, he said.

When her mother tried to inquire about all the travel and medical expenses and how they were being paid, Heena lied to her saying that the Srinagar events company was quite impressed with her talent and that now they were offering Heena her salary ahead many months in advance to help her and her mother.

“Ma didn’t know about the reality and how much money was [actually] needed for the treatment[s],” added Heena.  So she told her mother the costs were much less than they actually were. After receiving her treatments for cancer at a New Delhi hospital for one year, her mother’s cancer treatment was a success. She had gone into remission.

“On the same day when Ma was operated [on], a dagger stabbed my heart when my agent [my pimp] ordered [me to] –  ‘get yourself prepared tonight.’ I was horrified. It took me an age to muster the courage and say yes!” said Heena outlining her first night working as a prostitute.

Once she said yes, Heena left with her pimp going to an old house in New Delhi. It had a narrow stairway with broken edges that climbed up to an old-fashioned wooden bolted door. The scent of the izband [incense], known as Harmal which is made from Wild Rue Seeds, whirled through the air from one of the rooms where Heena was asked to go.

It was then the personal identity that Heena had about herself changed completely in one moment.

Trapped in the Indian Sex-Trade

“A woman came inside my room and said ‘get yourself dressed and if you don’t look pretty you will be rejected.'” described Heena wiping her eyes during her interview with WNN. “I was offered a cupboard [closet] to get myself dressed and put some make-up [on],” she shared.

“When I entered the room, I saw a middle-aged man in qurta-pyjamas  (traditional dress) and I had no excuse [no way] to escape. He stood up and bolted the door and that was my first night when the black rains poured on me and which still continue,” she outlined lowering her eyes.

Heena shared that after her mother recovered completely, she tried to convince her pimp that she only wanted to work until all the money he had given her had been repaid. But she didn’t know then that the life of a sex-worker had become part of her. Once into this business it’s difficult to get out, say many international experts on poverty and women.

Today Heena is far from alone in her chosen trade. The exact number of women who are prostitutes in the thwo different regions is not easy to to determine, as women who have become sex-workers often lead hidden lives away from any census or from society. Numerous cases of crack-downs on brothels are also often ‘hushed-up’ after they are exposed publicly and the outcry has subsided, shared Heena.

“Most of the sex-slaves are not in the profession by their own will,” outlines a top police official in Srinagar, who wants to stay anonymous. “They feel completely helpless and bowing to their basic instinct of survival and resort to such grave steps… …Being from a poor background makes them easy targets for such lechers.”

More than 25,000 Kashiri girls are working as prostitutes in Srinagar, outlined Justice Bashir Ahmad Kirmani, a retired Judge from the Jamu and Kashmir High Court who has reviewed numerous cases of illegal prostitution. The ‘flesh trade’ is flourishing “day by day,” he added.

“It is a growing phenomenon in Kashmir unfortunately…,” added Justice Kirmani. “…There is a need for sustained efforts involving all shades of opinions to look into the root cause of this problem. It is really a serious cause of concern,” continued the Justice.

Over the past years, state government and private agencies spending has been used to bring foreign and Indian tourists to the Kashmir valley, with a spin on its “breathtaking beauty.” But some observers in the region have noticed that the growing rush in tourism is also attracting sex-tourists.

“Many house boats owners, hotels, guest houses and government circuit houses are active in this flesh trade…,” said a tourist guide in Srinagar who wants to remain unnamed for this story. “With each passing day, the situation is becoming dangerous…,” he continued.

One of the problems for women sex-workers may be their ‘invisibility’ in society, but is not their only problem. They are often the ones who are the least likely to report a case of rape, violence or robbery. They are also the ones who are often the most stigmatized by society.

“Police led raid and rescue operations undermine the rights of victims, who may be prosecuted for soliciting or engaging in sex work in public places, even if they are coerced,” says a recent Joint Stakeholders’ Report for the United Nations Universal Periodic Review with the WGHR – Working Group on Human Rights in India.

“Th e Act undermines sex workers’ ability to claim protection by the law, while the absence of safeguards has intensified violence and exploitation by brokers, agents and the mafia,” adds the Review. “Relief and compensation for victims are non-existent. Recently, the Supreme Court directed the Central and State Governments to provide voluntary and effective rehabilitation to sex workers, in accordance with their right to live with dignity.”

Public opinion about sex-workers in India continues to cause a majority of sex-workers to be ignored, rejected and worse, ‘hated’ by society. This has slowed the ability for numerous women trapped in sex-trades to jump to new and ‘accepted’ careers and opportunities. A close look at economics, labor and society in India and the Kashmir region may hold some of the most important answers to the problems.

“…Ma’s loss would have been catastrophic I had not myself sacrificed,” said Heena. “I don’t regret [it though] because my mother is by my side today and her presence means more to me than everything else.”


Six decades of conflict in Kashmir has placed a terrible toll on its women and girls. In rural areas girls marry young and work instead of receiving a higher education. In urban areas women face personal violence as they are caught in the middle in-between Indian military and extremist forces. Displacement, fear, economic instability, loss of material property, loss of family, physical violence, negative health impacts and danger are all part of what women and girls face in regions where years of conflict have been part of society. This video produced and created by WNN journalist Aliya Bashir shows images of women in Kashmir, many in Srinagar, from 2010 – 2012.


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With a post-graduate degree in mass communications and journalism from University of Kashmir in Srinagar, WNN – Women News Network correspondent in Indian Kashmir, Aliya Bashir, is an investigative journalist reporting issues to “get closer to the facts” covering justice, human rights, women’s rights and civil society. Her work can be also be seen in  World Pulse,Kashmir Life, The Guardian News, Hindustan Times and Kashmir Newsline, as well as other publications.


Additional editing and researched materials for this story have been supplied by WNN – Women News Network. Some sources for this story include UNODC – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, The Ministry of Child Development India, Human Rights Watch, SANGRAM – Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha, Joint Stakeholders’ Report United Nations Universal Periodic Review, Sanjog India and WGHR – Working Group on Human Rights India.


©2012 WNN – Women News Network
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