An Unsung Hero
The mud track squelches beneath my feet, saturated from the last of the monsoon’s rain. Broken rickshaws, bits of scrap metal and heaps of plastic are piled high around me and the smells of urine, marijuana, alcohol and spice waft through the sticky air. It’s a far cry from the 5 * Park Hotel.
I’m in Kalighat, the heart of Kolkata’s red-light district, home to over 100,000 female sex workers and to an epidemic of child prostitution. I’m about to meet a woman, who has dedicated her life to protecting these children, a woman who has fought tirelessly to prevent intergenerational prostitution, I’m about to meet the founder of the New Light Shelter – Urmi Basu.
Some are abducted, some are sold, some are drugged, some are beaten and all are forced into prostitution; the sexual exploitation of children in India is on the rise. According to UNICEF over 400,000 Indian children now work in the sex trade, up from 100,000 in 1997. Girls as young as eight are being forced into prostitution, with those deemed ‘pretty’ servicing between 6-10 clients a day. The police get a cut of the brothel owners’ incomes in return for their silence and the sordid cycle continues, day in, day out.
Turning down a narrow side-street, I walk past women draped in filthy saris, sitting in the dirt, scrubbing out the remnants of rice bowls. They glare at me, a white imposter, as I pass. A few steps on and I make it to number 164, a large worn out building in need of paint, I take off my plimsolls and walk inside – I’ve made it to New Light. Up a flight of stairs and into a dormitory, where I meet the faces of too many children to count. A barrage of smiles consume my eyes and gleeful shouts of ‘aunty, aunty’ flood my ears. So many children, so many children.
“We are currently looking after 200 children,” Urmi later tells me as she explains the New Light project. “We are a non-profit organisation without a political agenda. We provide shelter, healthcare, educational opportunities, legal aid and recreational activities for the girls and women in the community. ”
We are in her office, a small room at the back of the shelter. There is a bookshelf, an old computer and a few photos on the otherwise bare walls. There is another photo on her desk, it faces her and I won’t see it until the end of the interview.
Born into a privileged Brahmin home, Urmi is slight, with short black hair that has started to turn grey. She has a big smile and brown eyes that never waver – you always have her full concentration. Her voice is soft but strong and she speaks in perfect English.
“We also have a crèche and a night-shelter where we provide protection for children rescued from the red-light area and the victims of trafficking,” she continues systematically. The youngest child, who was rescued last year, was just a few days old.
“I was walking to New Light,” Urmi tells me, her eyes narrowing passionately, “when I heard this loud crying. I followed the noise, found the house and went inside – just down here,” she points out of the window.
“Aisha was naked, on a wooden bench with her five-year-old brother trying to feed her a cooked egg yolk. I asked the boy where his mother was and he said he didn’t know – that she’d been gone for days.
“So, I told him that when his mother came back, she could come and see her baby here. I wrapped Aisha up in a blanket and brought her back to New Light, she’s been here ever since.” Has the mother ever been back?
“She has, but she has a problem with alcohol and I only allow her to come in when she is sober. So, most of the time she stands by the railings outside looking in.
“I tell her that when she stops drinking she can see Aisha, but she doesn’t manage it very often.”
New Light opened in 2000 and the first set of children that it looked after are now 18-years-old. The documentary ‘Born into Brothels,’ that was broadcast by the BBC earlier this year, followed a group of children also from Kalighat, who despite being given a place at school, returned to the sex trade. Have any of the New Light children gone into prostitution?
“Not a single one,” Urmi says proudly, “we’ve been open for 12 years and not one child has gone into their mother’s work. Not one.” Urmi never calls it ‘prostitution,’ always ‘work.’
“Our eldest children are now going to college – we have aspiring teachers, doctors, government workers and social workers.”
On top of education and vocational training, New Light also offers Microcredit to sex trade workers so they can start up their own business ventures.
“We have women making bed covers, women setting up food stalls, women hiring out rickshaws. More and more women are coming to the groups, the progress is fantastic.
“These women are shown that there are other ways to make their livelihoods, without having to work in the sex trade. And this belief helps not only the women, but also their children.”
The ethos of New Light is that the women and children of Kalighat are ‘victims of circumstances and would choose a different life if they had the opportunity to do so.’ As figures of child prostitution rise, Urmi and New Light are fighting back, sowing the seeds of change for an otherwise lost generation.
Urmi apologises, she has a meeting with one of the New Light doctors and my time is almost up. Where does she see New Light in ten years time?
“I hope that we can expand the project to other cities; to Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. I hope that we can continue to empower women and help many, many more children into alternate livelihood options.”
We shake hands, in Western style and I prepare to leave. Collecting my bag from under the table, I then stand and catch a glance of the photograph on her desk.
“Yes,” she smiles modestly, “I was lucky enough to meet him in 2009, he presented me with an honorary award for the New Light work.
And so I leave the woman who has been honoured by his Holiness the Dalai Lama and make my way back out into the streets of Kalighat, back past the glaring women and back to the Park Hotel. Urmi Basu, I decide, is the most inspirational woman I have ever met.