INDIA (BP) -- Ajanta Gupta* had nowhere to turn. A widow in her early 20s with HIV, two small children and no job, she was desperate.
A friend introduced her to prostitution as a quick way to earn cash to keep her children from starving.
So, one year after her husband died of AIDS, Ajanta joined the ranks of India's "fly prostitutes" -- middle-class housewives and students who sell their bodies, typically to pay rent and earn money for food for their families.
They feel there is no other option. The Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment reported that a woman's daily wage for unskilled labor averages $1.25 -- three-fourths of a man's wage for equivalent work. As a result, it is difficult for women to find jobs that can support an entire family. In Ajanta's case, her illness complicated matters even more.
"I need money to run my family, and the money I was able to earn was not sufficient," Gupta recounts. "Also, because I am sick, I am unable to work properly. So I had to go through with that work [prostitution]."
Gupta's friend, Laghuri Kapoor*, helps women enter prostitution every day. She's another fly prostitute in Gupta's city and has seen an increase in the number of housewives entering prostitution in the past couple of years.
Kapoor connects women with customers. While some might call her a pimp, she does not see herself that way. Instead, she explains how she cares for the women when they are sick and provides training to help them avoid AIDS. She recognizes that most women enter prostitution out of desperation.
"No one comes into this profession happily," Kapoor says.
Darpana Rana*, whose husband left her with three children, agrees. Rana explains that insufficient income or "bad" husbands -- those with a second family, an addiction or an abusive nature -- are some of the reasons women "slowly, slowly, get involved in the profession."
Even when legitimate work is available, oppression and abuse at home can leave women feeling worthless and unloved and cause them to turn back to their old ways. Yamini Chopra* left prostitution when she found work with a nonprofit organization but returned when her husband, who she describes as a drunkard, continued beating and abusing her. He constantly tells her she is worthless and bad.
"Since he is convinced I am bad," Chopra says, "I decided to be bad!"
As a result of his insults and even the encouragement of her family, Chopra returned to prostitution a few years ago.
"My family told me that since my husband was going to abuse me whether I was a prostitute or not, I might as well make more money as a prostitute," Chopra says.
Though their circumstances have hardened them, the same difficulties that drove these women to prostitution -- loneliness, hunger, poverty and desperation -- are also drawing them to the Gospel. In recent months, four women prayed to receive Christ.
Gupta was the first.
Seven months ago, Indian pastors Rabindra Bhat* and Aashank Malik* visited Gupta. Bhat worked with Gupta before her husband died. He thought Gupta could help him understand how best to minister to HIV patients since her husband died of AIDS. During the visit, Gupta confessed her involvement in prostitution.
Bhat shared the Gospel with Gupta, and a small group of believers began meeting regularly in Gupta's home. Gupta's mother, Mahdu*, and her sister, Gargi*, also attended the meetings. Within a few weeks, both Gupta and Mahdu prayed to receive Christ.
"Before where I worked, some of them used to pray to Jesus. In my heart, I liked Jesus, but I never had much information," Gupta explains. "Then, these two brothers came and talked with me more and I decided to accept Jesus as my Savior."
A few weeks later, Bhat baptized Gupta and Mahdu. The small group of believers celebrated with communion at Gupta's home. During the celebration, customers came calling, and she turned them away.
Today, Gupta has a job as a teacher's assistant at a small preschool. A local church supplements her salary. She and the group of believers continue to meet weekly in her home. Recently, she allowed a team of American volunteers to host a medical clinic in her yard. Along with her neighbors, Gupta invited her friends who are involved in prostitution. At the clinic, two women prayed to receive Christ -- a 19-year-old neighbor and a 20-something prostitute.
Though Gupta admits some friends are angry with her for leaving prostitution, she unashamedly tells them her story and urges them to follow her God. Most remain unconvinced.
"Any god will help us," Rana says bluntly, "if we are fully devoted to him. The Hindu god, the Muslim god, they are all the same."
Rana explains that when customers call she drops what she is doing and runs to them. She likens this to God's relationship to mankind.
"Of course, God will run to us if we are devoted to Him," Rana says. "But our minds are not devoted to God. We are only thinking about our needs. When [my income] is sufficient, then I will think about God."
In spite of their doubts, however, the women want to hear more. The group meets monthly to discuss Gupta's God and ways out of prostitution. At one of the meetings, her friend Kapoor surprised everyone and prayed to receive Christ.
Gupta keeps inviting everyone to hear because she wants them to know about the happiness she has found in Jesus Christ.
"I am so happy ... openly I have declared that I love Jesus," Gupta says. "Now everybody knows that I love Jesus and I am so happy about that."
*Names changed. Tess Rivers is a writer based in Southeast Asia. This article originally appeared on www.asiastories.com.
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