By Lindsey Swedic, the Communications Manager for Apne Aap International, the U.S. affiliate of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which operates in the red light areas of Delhi, West Bengal and Bihar.
Samona* lives in a small, dark room in Sonagachi, the largest red-light area in India. She was sold there as a 15-year-old girl. For seven years, she has lived and worked and mothered a child in that room. "I usually have 20-30 clients a day," she says. Samona's six-year-old son lives with her there. If you ask Samona what gives her strength, she will show you her son's report card and tell you that he is going to have a better life than she did.
Samona's son has been going to school close by Sonagachi. While he has excelled as a student, there are many limitations that come with growing up, and trying to get an education, in a red-light area. For all children born in a brothel, there are common difficulties.
In the red light area, children's access to mainstream education, health and protection services are often blocked due to stigma. It is common for children to experience abuse personally, or watch their mothers endure violence. "As the children grow older, girls are subjected to sexual abuse, harassment and pressure to enter prostitution. Boys are introduced to alcohol and substance abuse early in their lives," says Tamal Mukherjee, Apne Aap's Learning Project Officer in Kolkata. "Since the mothers work throughout the whole day, [they] are often unable to provide a suitable place for their children to do homework."
For years, Apne Aap staff members have been attempting to get Samona's son, as well as 22 other children from Sonagachi, into hostels -- safe spaces where children receive shelter, meals, education and resources to succeed. In February, 2013, we proudly admitted twelve children -- six girls and six boys -- to Ramkrishna Vivevekananda Mission, Barrackpore. The remaining eleven children will be admitted soon.
Moushmi is one such girl. A lively eight-year-old, she has grown up in the streets of Sonagachi. When she was offered an opportunity to be admitted into the hostel she jumped at the chance. "I was admitted in class III, and at present, my life has changed radically," says Moushmi. A month ago, her future would have been prostitution, but with the chance at education, all that has changed. "I aspire to be a doctor," says Moushmi. "I dream of having a clinic of my own one day in Sonagachi to serve all the local people. I would also like to take out my mother from the red light area and settle somewhere far off from this place." It is lives like this that have the power to transform the zeitgeist of places like Sonagachi, where women are valued only for their bodies. By investing in Moushmi's education, we are really investing in community transformation. By investing in the education of Samona's son, we are breaking cycles of exploitation, not just at a macro level, but at the core of a family.
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*name changed to protect identity.