Fighting through the darkness
‘Socially confined’ can be the right word for the residents of the red light areas (RLAs). A woman of an RLA is confined within her ‘profession’ by her trafficker / pimp / landlady through a mechanism of intimidation and violence. The children of RLAs carry marks - which are not always visible - of pain, abuse, and neglect. Their psychological struggles do not allow them to be fully connected with their surroundings and impede their academic development.
Business Economics spoke to Satyendra Nath Dey, Councillor of Ward No. 48 (The Bowbazaar RLA is located in this ward).
Q. How is prostitution still openly prevalent in this area?
A. This has been happening in this area since the British period. If you want to stop this you have to first think about these women’s rehabilitation and plan alternative livelihood options for them. This process is huge and hard. The organisations and individuals who are helping them to do so are welcome. Government is also taking steps. You have to keep in mind that these women are not accepted by society. Moreover, many of them are addicted to drugs and alcohol. You cannot just leave these women and their children to starve and die. As a councillor, I try to stand beside them.
Many social organisations are working in the RLAs in Kolkata. The South Kolkata Hamari Muskan (SKHM) is one of them. SKHM is a frontline, pro-abolitionist, and anti-trafficking organisation. This organisation has been able to bring positive changes in the lives of distressed women of the RLAs of Bowbazaar and Shovabazar in Kolkata. At present, the SKHM has the largest social set up in the RLA of Bowbazaar, Kolkata and works tirelessly to support the women and children of that area. SKHM has set up education and activity centres and night crèche for the children of these areas. They try to ensure the development, protection, and education of the children of these RLAs to prevent second generation prostitution and trafficking.
BE interacted with some of the children who are under the aegis of SKHM. A boy of class VIII who studies in a local government school stated, “I learned here to stay positive and develop myself for future endeavours.” A girl who studies in class X said, “I learned to protest against wrong after coming to SKHM.” A girl of class IX said, “SKHM has changed my life. I did not know the beautiful sides of life.” Another girl of class XII stated, “I have learned from SKHM to ignore bad things and focus as well as spread the goodness of life.”
Apart from being the umbrella for many such children, SKHM has formed a mothers’ group. The intention is to provide psychological intervention and hobby classes which might grow into alternative careers for them. Under this initiative, some ladies have set up a canteen project named ‘Mukhorochok’, which prepare and sell snacks. SKHM initially handed over Rs. 20,000 to these ladies apart from their regular stipend. Now they roll that fund and their profit for the project.
BE spoke to many of these ladies. They said, “We have gained confidence as this small initiative has been successful. We also know that Srabani di (Srabani Sarkar Neogi - The Founder Secretary and Director of SKHM) and other associates of SKHM are there to stand for us. This feeling gives us strength. Our lives have changed after joining SKHM.” SKHM has also initiated costume jewellery making classes for the mothers and ladies of RLA Bowbazaar, Kolkata.
The SKHM recently held their annual programme, SHORGOL, in collaboration with The Foundation for Rebuilding Childhood at The Calcutta University Institute Hall, Kolkata. The English meaning of the Bengali word ‘shorgol’ is ‘noise’. But for the members of SKHM, it is actually the ‘voices’ of the unheard. The programme unveiled the creative side of these socially marginalised children.
Srabani Sarkar Neogi, the Founder Secretary and Director of South Kolkata Hamari Muskan spoke to BE in detail regarding their activities.
Q. What are the obstacles that you faced while working for the children of RLAS?
A. It can be said, handling the following issues and situations are the main obstacles -
l Substance abuse l Sexual, mental and physical abuse l Migration from one RLA to another RLA l No birth certificate or any legal documents l Parents with heavy substance abuse l No proper nutrition l No proper care l No safe space l Seeing mother in the act of prostitution day in day out l Breaking of trust l Tendency to drop out from school or discontinuation of academic pursuits
Q. You are also working with women who were previously into prostitution but are presently rehabilitated with the support of SKHM. How was the process to motivate them out of prostitution?
A. Not all women were in prostitution. Around 60% of them were into prostitution, 10% of them were in tertiary professions (distribution and supply of country liquor, marijuana, room rentals for prostitution, etc.) and others were in vulnerable situations and were prone to prostitution (most of their mothers or mothers in laws were/are into prostitution).
It is not very easy to motivate them for alternative livelihood options because they earn more than what we provide as stipend. But the mental health programme (most of them have attended mother’s meeting which we run through trained psychotherapists) and their continuous connection with the therapists have helped them move out and choose better livelihood options.
Q. Do these women face any problem in the process of rehabilitation?
A. They faced problems from their families and from their community when they decided to seek freedom from prostitution and abuse. They faced various obstacles and heard many derogatory comments and statements from their respective family members. Most of them hear that they do not have any future if they work in canteen management or in costume jewellery making. At times, they are beaten for not giving enough time to their families because of their professional duties at South Kolkata Hamari Muskan.
Q. Is government taking enough steps to help these marginalised women and the children of red light areas in Kolkata?
A. Government has started a scheme called ‘Muktir Aloy’ for the rehabilitation of women who are in prostitution. The government has also started ‘Kanyashri Prakalpa’ for all female children.
Q. What more can be done from the government’s end?
A. A lot more can be done. It will be good if the government can start a rehabilitation programme focusing on the mental health of these women and children and also focus on alternative livelihood means for them.