Website Analytics and Website Statistics by WebSTAT

Working in the red light district, Kolkata.

Telling my dad that I was going to work in the red light district of Kolkata was one of the more interesting and tense conversations I’ve had with him in my not too long adult life.

Of course I’m going on to say that the work I am doing here in Kolkata doesn’t involve me selling my body, but it does very much involve prostitution. And the fortunate yet unfortunate thing about that is, I have had the right to choose what I do with my body, because, after all, it is mine. The women I have come in contact with during my stay here, haven’t been so ‘fortunate’.

I’ve always felt strongly about women’s rights, after all I am one, and shouldn’t we all? and as I get older and discover more of the things I enjoy, which include travelling, dancing, socialising, fashion, I can’t help but feel strange about the fact that there are millions of women out there today that aren’t able to choose to enjoy these things. This makes me angry.

On reading the book Half the Sky; Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn, I decided I wasn’t going to get angry, I was going to get even. I don’t have much money, I didn’t want to send an anonymous cheque, and as the book suggests, the best way to get involved is to contribute your time and get on the front line, this way you can understand what is really happening, and are much more likely overall to give more of yourself. The NGO New Light, and it’s founder Urmi Basu featured in the book, and shone out to me.

I felt scared about going to work in the notorious red light districts of Kalilghat and Songachi. Of course I did. I was nervous about what might happen to me, street wise as I am, I was honestly concerned about the situations I could find myself in. But, after treading the pavements myself, meeting the women and children and the staff at New Light, all I did was get braver, and more fierce, remembering that this trip was never about me anyway, it was about them.

Starfish, the toddler group where I am based to work is in Songachi, on the last estimate has 11,000 sex workers treading and residing in it’s tiny dirty streets, and is rumoured to be the largest red light district in Asia. 800-1000 women arrive here to work every year. You won’t find any bright light glamour here. Some work roadside, some live in the multi-storey brothels titled with sickly names like ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Love Nest’, and some take their business home. Many of the women here are trafficked via North Bengal from Nepal, and are sold for higher rates then the local Bengali women. Many are minors. While the women are working, their children hang around the streets and brothels, day & night. Some children have grown into fully fledged adults via a Songachi brothel corridor.

50% of children in India today are sexually or emotionally abused, or both.

'Starfish' in Songachi

‘Starfish’ in Songachi

'Starfish' toddler centre in Songachi

‘Starfish’ toddler centre in Songachi

Songachi

Songachi

Songachi

Songachi

Children at 'Starfish' toddler group, Songachi.

Children at ‘Starfish’ toddler group, Songachi.

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata
What appealed to me about New Light and it’s founder, Ms. Urmi Basu, was her bravery. She is not afraid to get in people’s faces. In 2000 she set up New Light slap bang in the middle of the Kalighat red light district, a series of tiny lanes, where on navigating your way to the office, you brush backs with the pimps, prostitutes and middle men. Urmi was in their faces every day and she wasn’t going to go away. At first her presence was not well received, but once the local women got to see what she was doing for their children and community, they got behind her. 16 years later, New Light takes care of 250 children,  and has a series of projects including the original drop off day centre mentioned above, a toddlers group, three boarding houses for children who need to live full time, a toddlers day centre in Songachi, and another evening centre right in the middle of a crematorium, for after school teaching and feeding of children from the Dalit community (known as India’s lowest ‘untouchable’ caste). New Light offers education, healthcare, nutritional support, recreational facility, HIV/AIDS care, income generation opportunities for the women and residential care for many of the young children from the community. Legal aid and advocacy against gender based violence are other thrust areas of New Light’s operation.

The children are wonderful, they break my heart with how wonderful they are. They’re bright, happy, polite and clever. And they love their mums. The New Light staff are brilliant with them, and are the family and environment protection warriors they need. I have spent my time at New Light working with the toddlers, playing games and making paintings with potaoes, sharing their sweets and giving them cuddles.. and teaching English to the older ones in the evenings. I cross my fingers for their future, but believe in the work New Light is doing for them.

Kalighat red light district

Kalighat red light district

New Light Kolkata

Kalighat, Kolkata

Kalighat, Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

Peace

Peace

New Light, Kalighat, Kolkata

New Light, Kalighat, Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

New Light Kolkata

Kalighat

Kalighat

Kalighat, Kolkata

Kalighat, Kolkata

New Light, Kalighat, Kolkata

New Light, Kalighat, Kolkata

I was particularly lucky to be involved with a yearly 4 day workshop in Kolkata, this time the focus was on the women, no kiddies allowed. It was a storytelling workshop with a brilliantly theatrical lady named Zuleika who runs The Storydancer Project. It featured yoga, massage, dance, art, nutritional advice & beauty. It allowed, most importantly, for these 21 ladies, all working in the sex industry, to forget for 4 days what life is like in the Kalighat red light district. We danced, we laughed, we cried, we slept and we ate. I will never ever forget applying a face mask to one of the ladies, her head in my lap, as I applied the mask as gently as I could over her bruised face. It was the most elating feeling to know that I, even just for 10 minutes, put hands on her with nothing but care, softness and respect. To those that say the problem of gender inequality in India is too great to attempt to make a difference, Urmi says, and I agree:

On a global scale the problem of prostitution is so complex and huge that I would be completely overwhelmed if I think about it. I choose to reduce the aperture of my vision and concentrate my energy only on things that I can do. I have seen people helped just by a word of kindness or a moment of attention.

These women are me and I am them, and I just happened to be born where I was, with what I had.
Kolkata is hard. It’s dirty, it’s rough, it’s unforgiving, it’s hot but the sun doesn’t come out, and you’re never far away from poverty. All life, good and bad, is on display on it’s streets. My visit to Kolkata ended as a window shopper, but a part of it will always stay.

New Light is a fabulous NGO, non-religion charity based in the red-light district of Kolkata.

For more information including donating and volunteering, you can visit their webpage here.

You can find the book I read to inspire my trip here.

Because after all, women hold up half the sky.

 

 

 

4 Comments

Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Natalie Fox says:

    A beautiful and heartfelt account, shining light on a dark, dark corner of humanity. The childrens faces, the outstanding work carried out by New Light and you, Kim, for opening your heart and sharing this story; gives me hope that change is ahead 🙂

Trackbacks for this post

  1. The sea is my cup of tea - Celebrating International Women’s day with the Adventure Film Travel Club • The sea is my cup of tea
  2. The sea is my cup of tea - Celebrating International Women’s day with the Adventure Travel Film Club • The sea is my cup of tea

Leave a Comment

Let us know your thoughts on this post but remember to place nicely folks!