When Rashida Bibi was 16, she left her native Bangladesh and came to Kolkata, India, with the promise of a job as a nanny.
It was a lie. In fact, she was a victim of sex trafficking.
“After giving me shelter for a few days, the family told me that they couldn’t keep me and that I had to start working as a prostitute,” Bibi says. Tears well up in her eyes when she remembers that moment.
Some 30 years later, Bibi is one of an estimated 11,000 sex workers in Sonagachi, a notorious red-light district in Kolkata.
And she is the mother of 16-year-old Madhabi, who attends secondary school and dreams of being a hip-hop dancer in Bollywood. The teenager spends hours each week trying to perfect the art of “B-fusion,” a mix of classical Indian dance, Bollywood choreography and hip-hop elements. She’s teaching herself by watching TV and movie dance scenes.
The reason that Madhabi has high hopes? An organization called New Light, which educates and cares for children of sex workers in the red-light district of Kalighat in Kolkata (about 10 minutes from the Sonagachi neighborhood where Rashida Bibi works). Its founder, Urmi Basu, this year was a recipient of India’s highest civilian honor for women, the Nari Shakti Puraskar award, given by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. “Basu and her team have been working relentlessly in a mission to educate and provide better lives to the ignored, neglected and often humiliated children of sex workers,” according to a statement from the ministry.
Basu is humbled by the honor. But she still worries about having enough money to pay her staff of 35 — teachers and tutors who help the kids with their homework, counselors, drivers who take them to and from school, a nurse and the day-to-day operations personnel. The organization has a $250,000 a year budget, all of it from private donations.
A Troubling Walk
Urmi Basu first came to Kolkata’s sex worker neighborhoods 20 years ago. Sex work is legal in India although soliciting, brothels and working as a pimp are against the law.
A sociologist who’d grown up in a family of social activists, Basu had heard about the plight of the women and their children in Kalighat and wanted to see for herself. “I arrived there on a chilly night in November. I walked in through these narrow lanes with rooms on both sides measuring, more or less, five feet by seven feet.”
Those were the rooms where the sex workers lived and also met with their customers.
“It was a dark, miserable, forgotten space. At one point I saw a woman holding a baby right outside the doorway.” When she asked, Basu says she was told that ” the child’s mother was entertaining a client inside.”
Basu spent several weeks learning about the lives of sex workers. The women with children told her that they’d hide their kids under the bed or in closets while they were working. That was how they tried to protect them from clients who might come drunk or on drugs and sometimes become violent.
It was clear to Basu that the children were rarely safe. One night, she saw kids playing unsupervised in the lanes of Kalighat at night and decided to set up a shelter where the youngsters could escape the harsh world around them.
She was especially concerned about the kids nearing puberty. “When these kids are left unsupervised they can be taken in an instant,” says Basu. “Girls as young as 9 or 10 are sometimes forced into prostitution.”
After deciding that she wanted to help, Basu and some of the residents in Kalighat negotiated with the owners of a local temple to donate a vacant room on the first floor of a two-story building. It was there she set up a nighttime drop-off shelter for the kids of sex workers.
“I told them, give me a space where kids can be kept safe. So I was shown a room that was dark, there was paint peeling off the walls and the front door was broken off. It was really a hopeless place and at that moment it didn’t seem like anything could be done with it,” says Basu.
With the help of Kalighat residents and private donations, Basu worked to turn the one-room shelter into an inviting space and safe haven for kids. Her team of volunteers painted the walls, scrubbed the floor, fixed the busted door and set up an area where kids could play and read.
The mothers were initially skeptical of the shelter – and Basu’s intentions. But over time, the women came to see New Light as not only a safe space for their children but a place where they could go for help as well – whether for medical care or counseling.
Building A Home
Today, New Light has grown into more than a drop-off shelter. Now occupying the entire top floor of the original building, it’s a home for the kids, from newborns to roughly 10-year-olds. They can get help with their schoolwork and some basic health care as well as food and clothing.
In addition, New Light opened the Hogar Meridional-Soma Memorial Girls Home for girls ages 11 to 18 in 2005. The home is named after Soma, an infant who died due to lack of proper medical attention. There are about 25 residents.
Five years later, New Light opened a residential home for boys, Khela-Ghar, which also has about 25 kids. Basu has found that pimps and brothel owners often train the boys to act as informants and lookouts. They also put boys to work delivering alcohol and drugs to clients.
In the three facilities, all of the residents are children of sex workers. Some have lost their mothers to complications from sexually transmitted diseases or alcohol/drug addiction, but the majority of the moms are just unable to care for their children.
The teachers on the New Light staff aim to provide the kids with structure. Each night at 5 p.m. in the common room of the shelter for younger kids, a loudspeaker plays the Indian national anthem — a signal to the approximately 40 kids living there that the evening program is about to begin. They quickly form three rows and loudly belt out the anthem, hands placed over their hearts. After that, they sit with their legs crossed while reciting and singing along to the Buddhist mantra, “Om mani padme hum” — said to sum up the essence of Buddha’s teachings.
Some moms occasionally take their kids home for the night but Basu tries to convince them that their children are safer at New Light.
A Teacher’s Story
Basu estimates that over the years, New Light has cared for more than 600 children. She says they have gone on to success in many fields. Some of them work in restaurants, hotels, cruise ships and gas stations. Some are college graduates. And some of them teach and tutor children at New Light’s facilities.
One of those teachers is Sima Halder, who came to the shelter when she was 14. She is not the child of a sex worker, but New Light made an exception to prevent her from falling into a life of prostitution, as many girls in her neighborhood do. She is now 28.
“Both of my parents are illiterate and if not for New Light, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my higher education,” Halder says. “I chose to become a teacher so that I can give back to the community where girls are constantly at risk of being forced into sex work. There is nothing else I would choose to do over the work I do.”
At the main shelter, she helps kids with homework, reviews their school progress and helps organize special events. New Light picked up the cost of Halder’s secondary schooling; she later got a job to put herself through university.
Helping Sex Workers Too
The charity is also working to help the sex workers themselves — but that’s a constant struggle, Basu says.
“Many of these women were born into prostitution, and it’s the only life they know. I find myself fighting for not only their children but for them.”
In 2016, New Light teamed up with the Seattle-based Village Volunteers to launch the Mukti Project. Mukti, a Bengali term for “liberation” or “freedom,” gives the mothers of New Light a way to earn a living outside of the sex trade. Every morning, about half a dozen former sex workers meet in a small factory in Kalighat. They’ve been trained to manufacture biodegradable sanitary napkins, which are sold in Kalighat and surrounding neighborhoods.
“The women have been trained in all aspects of the production process — everything from preparing the raw materials to operating the machinery to manufacturing the sanitary pads,” says Shana Greene, founder of Village Volunteers.
Greene says the project not only allows former sex workers to provide for themselves financially, but it also gives women and girls access to sanitary products.
“Many young women can’t afford or don’t have access to sanitary materials that are discreet and absorbent enough,” she says. “Sometimes they have no choice but to use dirty rags, plastic bags or cow dung, which can lead to infections that they can’t afford to get treated.”
But getting the Mukti Project started wasn’t easy. Several residents in Kalighat didn’t want to live next door to a business that employed former sex workers. The women had to move their operation several times before finding a permanent space, and according to Greene they still face day-to-day challenges.
“The women aim to produce about 1,000 pads daily, but the extreme heat and high humidity, especially during monsoon season, sometimes makes it difficult for them to glue the pads together,” Greene says.
Not every woman is able to leave the trade. Bibi, who has two children in addition to Madhabi, never learned to read or write. “There is no hope for me at this point,” she says. Bibi guesses that she’s about 45 but doesn’t have a birth certificate so isn’t sure of her age.
The room where she lives and practices sex work is dark, windowless and contains only a dingy mattress and an old shelf. She uses bleach and burns eucalyptus leaves in a jar to mask the stench of raw sewage that filters up through a hole in the floor that she uses as a toilet. She works under the close eye of her pimp, who guards the entrance of her room to see how many clients she takes on each day. Bibi says she sometimes sees nine or 10 clients a day. The pimp gets a cut of the fee; she will earn about $5 or $6.
Always At The Door
But for Basu, the main concern is helping the children. Like 16-year-old Shibani, whose mother contracted HIV as a sex worker and died of AIDS-related tuberculosis when her daughter was 6. Now Shibani studies fashion design and dreams of opening her own sari shop. In her spare time, she sketches clothing and jewelry designs on a worn-out notepad on the floor of the bedroom she shares with three other girls.
“I like all kinds of Indian and Western styles,” says the girl, who will graduate from 10th grade next year.
Dipesh Tank is a social activist who partners with anti-trafficking organizations in Mumbai. He says programs like New Light give the children of sex workers a chance at a better life. “There is a lack of opportunities for children living in red-light areas, and without education young girls and other at-risk children are often fooled by traffickers and pimps in the hopes of getting a better job and livelihood,” Tank says.
Basu looks to the future with hope — but also trepidation. “I can probably imagine where I would like to be, but there is no guarantee that we would get there because anything can happen. There can be a riot, some pimps can come and tear our place down. There can be a fire, I could be shot or killed,” Basu says. She hasn’t been threatened directly but worries that new pimps or brothel owners could move into the area and see New Light as “bad for business.”
The job has taken a toll. Basu was married twice, but both marriages ended for reasons related to the amount of time she devotes to New Light. Basu has one son, who’s a lawyer, and is the legal guardian of three residents of New Light.
And she always has a full plate. One day last August, she spent several hours trying to convince a 26-year-old mother, whose two sons live at the shelter, to seek treatment at a hospital because she is HIV-positive.
The woman refused to get help — she didn’t want to leave her pimp, who supplies her with alcohol. She died in July 2019 from an HIV-related infection exacerbated by chronic alcohol use. Before she died, she signed over parental rights to New Light, which is now the official guardian of her boys.
That same day in August, Basu reviewed student report cards and tried to make payroll on time. It was nearly dusk. She looked exhausted but still smiled. “This is my reality,” Basu said. “Once I get one child situated, another one appears at my door.”