When Bharti Tapas was 14, she says she was sold into slavery, beaten and forced into prostitution.
"When I arrived at the brothel, I refused to do what they told me to and they beat me and starved me for 10 days," says the softspoken girl. "I thought I would rather kill myself than be forced to work as a prostitute."
She was just a schoolgirl when she found herself in Bombay, along with thousands of other girls who are beaten, locked in tiny cages or hidden in attics. Some are forced to have sex with as many as 20 men a day under the watchful eyes of madams and pimps.
"They are not given enough to eat. There are no beds. They have to sleep on the floor. Sometimes they are raped," says Ruchira Gupta, a social worker and documentary filmmaker who spent months investigating the horrors of Bombay's brothels for her film The Selling of Innocents.
It can take 10 years for a woman to buy her freedom — if she doesn't first succumb to AIDS, other STDs, complications from repeated abortions, malnourishment, malaria, or TB. Most don't make it to the age of 40.
"There's high rates of suicides among these girls because they have no escape," says Gupta. "Once or twice I know of girls who tried to get out and they were beaten black and blue and locked up all over again."
One Man's Crusade
Though prostitutes can be seen openly soliciting on the streets in the red-light district, police often pay no heed. Asked what role his department plays in rescuing these girls, the Bombay police commissioner says, "Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession in this world … The society has been accepting it, demanding it and then encouraging it … We are not social workers … we are law enforcers."
And yet, it is one civilian — and not the police — who has taken on a personal and very dangerous crusade to rescue abducted girls. So far, Balkrishna Archarya, a Bombay businessman, says he has rescued 187 underage girls.
One of those girls was Bharti, whom he saved with the help of ABCNEWS' hidden cameras. Bharti was then reunited with her family. Though she still fears the stigma of being shunned by her family and village for having worked as a prostitute, she is back in school in West Bengal.
The Intersection of Poverty and Sexism
According to Gupta, it is often the parents who send their children away, thinking they may be going to do domestic work, when in fact they will end up in prostitution.
"It is the intersection of poverty and sexism," says Gupta, who recalls a father of four children who worked as a bricklayer in Kathmandu. "At the time I met him, one of his kids had tuberculosis. The family was literally starving," she says. "He thought if he would let one child go at least the other three would survive."
So he sold one of his girls for approximately $80. What he did not know was that he had actually sold his daughter to Gupta, who filmed the transaction for her documentary. Gupta not only supported the child whom he had sold, but also put all four of his kids through boarding school in Kathmandu.
Gupta then set up an organization called Apne Aap, in an attempt to put an end to prostitution and reduce HIV transmission.
"We are trying to create a system of support for these girls who want to get out of prostitution," she says of her organization, which has reached out to about 17,000 women. Based in Bombay's red-light area, Apne Aap also seeks to protect the daughters of prostitutes from being sexually exploited.
"Literally we are buying time from the brothel madams for the daughters of the prostitutes to stay in school," she says.
ABCNEWS.com's Rebecca Raphael contributed to this report.