Over 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta's largest red-light district. Often forced into the trade by poverty, abandonment or the rampant trafficking business which forcibly transports young girls from Nepal and neighboring Bangladesh, they come from all castes, but have been pushed down the social scale to Sonagachi, a seedy landscape of narrow alleys, the next ground zero in the global AIDS epidemic.

World health officials are calling India the next Africa, forecasting more Indians will die from AIDS in the next decade than all the HIV-related deaths since the disease was discovered in 1981. With an estimated million prostitutes in

India, prostitution is the lit match of the AIDS tinderbox. A host of local non-government organizations have collected millions of dollars in aid money to halt the transmission of the disease. Plagued by infighting and corruption, however, little of it has funneled down to the alleys of Sonagachi. There, cheap condoms are readily available, but women remain ignorant of their importance or powerless to make customers use them.

Even with awareness, the financial pressures are too great to refuse customers who won't use condoms. As a prostitute, Beauty, put it, "So what if I'm afraid? If it's not that way, they will go away. Some other girl will say, 'Come, I'll entertain you without a condom.' Then it's my loss."

Beauty and her customer, Naren, in a Calcutta brothel. Beauty is from Bangladesh and without papers. She sleeps her way across the border in order to go home to visit her five-year-old son. She is very popular with the customers. She says of them, "By acting like I’m in love, I get them under my control, so that they keep coming back. This is my way of earning money. I never truly love anyone."
Inside a brothel room.
Paper butterflies decorating a brothel room.
A drunk customer has fallen down the stairs inside the brothel.
A sex worker’s footprints leading back to her room.
Detail from the wall of a brothel room.
A sex worker takes an afternoon nap on a bench in the corridor.
Negotiations between customers and sex workers on the third and fourth floors of the brothel.
Rina dresses in her sari to prepare for the evening’s work.
The shadows of customers in the lane outside the brothel.
A staircase in a brothel.
Gita, Beauty’s madam, yanks Beauty by her braid in front of customers to keep her in line. Gita is in charge of 10 to 15 women who operate out of one room but rent others by the night as needed.
Sunita, Kavita and others wait in the lane outside the brothel for customers.
Puja and her customer Kanu.