An Indian Red Light Area & Why We Do What We Do

An Indian red light area:
Red light areas in India show or bear no territorial and/or social distinction between public/work and private/familial spaces. A red light community is an isolated society within itself. In it the main trade (of prostitution) and tertiary trades are carried out within the confines of a building that serves as a brothel (public) and as homes (private) for women working in that brothel. When we talk of tertiary trades we include money-making actions which include renting of rooms for purpose of prostitution; manufacture / selling / delivery of locally-made alcohol; gambling / lotto dens; marijuana dens; babysitting for mothers at work at a per hour basis; running pice (food) shops for customers; etc. Generations of women live in brothels in single, tiny rooms which are rather generously called “ghar” (home).

Whether retired or still in business, a woman and her immediate and/or extended family co-habit a tiny space which is used for work (again be it the flesh trade and/or tertiary trades), along with cooking, maintaining minimum hygiene (rooms with drains in them double-up as bathrooms for babies/toddlers and menstruating girls), study areas, sleep and relaxation, and entertainment (TV, music), etc. In short, multiple family members may co-exist in a single-roomed ghar / home within brothels where they cook, eat, relax / sleep and entertain clients.

Red light areas are microcosms of the mainstream society in which variety of households involved in trades play major to minor roles in maintaining its socio-economic structure. It is self-sustaining model. There are several job options even if two-thirds of them are illegal or put workers at-risk. It is the very reason why even if it is cut off from the mainstream, a red light area manages to thrive on its own—in fact it thrives better on its own.

Children growing up within such areas, too, are cut off from the mainstream. They exist in a society that works on its own rules / principles. One of the main rules of such a society is that of violence. Violence in its many forms is the chief and sometimes the only mechanism through which a girl / woman is kept within confines of her “work” by a trafficker / pimp / landlady. Children born out of this violence become a part of this cycle of trauma—right from birth. It is not rare for a child to carry marks—visible or otherwise—of abuse and neglect by the time they reach their puberty. In process of recovering from the violence, adolescents and children encounter mental, emotional and / or social difficulties that deter them from being invested in their surroundings, studies and in their lives, to the best of their abilities.

In parts of India prostitution is considered as a main source of family income in the guise of “social traditions”. Several women who are in it hail from very poor to poor financial backgrounds. Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) statement reads, “...studies and surveys sponsored by the Ministry of Women and Child Development estimate that there are about three million prostitutes in the country, of which an estimated 40% are children.” Authorities believe that 90 per cent of human trafficking in India is intra-country. Young people under the age of 18 years comprise at least one-third of people in the flesh trade in cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. On average, the number of children engaged in prostitution in India increases by at least 30,000 human beings per year. A survey by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development reveal that only 4.9 % of the prostitutes in Kolkata were born within the city. In May 2009, CBI also had the following statistics: around 1.2 million children are believed to be involved in prostitution in India. Ashwani Kumar, the then-chief of CBI, said at an anti-human-trafficking seminar that India occupied a “unique” position—a nation that is a source, transit and destination point for this trade. It is estimated that there are around a 100-million people involved in human trafficking in India. The number of trafficked human beings is difficult to determine due to the secrecy and clandestine nature of the crime. Prostitution and trafficking are intertwined. It may take up to 15 years for girls held in prostitution via the “debt-bondage” process to purchase their “freedom” (Freidman, 1996). Even very young children do not escape the bondage. In fact children are the easiest preys. Root causes of prostitution are poverty and illiteracy: lack of education / information and money lead to a life in risky environments, a childhood stolen, and shameless violations of basic human rights.

Given the facts, the most at-risk and vulnerable, are the children of prostitutes themselves. As mothers work, children loiter around and are exploited especially by visiting clients and passers-by. Besides, when a brothel gets raided and women are arrested, children are left with pimps or brothel owners. Children of prostitutes are the worst sufferers of the trade. They are alienated from basic entitlements; such as education, health and nutrition and hygiene. This environment leads to traumas and prevents growth as wholesome / holistic human beings.

Why we do what we do:
South Kolkata Hamari Muskan (a.k.a. Muskan or SKHM) is the idea of social development worker Srabani Sarkar Neogi who has 25 (plus) years of experience working within red light areas alongside women in prostitution, children and youths growing up in the community. During her years in the field Srabani was troubled by the lack of safety among children and youths growing up in the red light area—especially as mothers worked. Srabani’s experience also showed her that at-risk children faced abuse from the very persons they got to meet every day (clients, pimp or brothel-owners) leading to emotional scars that often took a lifetime to heal. While mothers worked, children were driven out of homes—day or night. This lack of safe space made children more vulnerable to incidents of abuse (physical, verbal, sexual & emotional) & neglect. The lack of space also meant an invasion of privacy—especially for young-adult females—which led to physical & emotional ill-health. Even while they were at home, menstruating girls found it especially hard to cope with daily hygiene rituals since in red light areas, space comes at a premium and most rooms or even building floors with several rooms / ghar do not have private and/or attached bathrooms.

SKHM’s primary task is to provide children, youths and mothers, a safe space with all basic amenities present (an attached, clean bathroom—accessible to all along with drinking water). SKHM’s aim is protection of stakeholders. Second is to provide education and skill-based training combined with psychosocial interventions so that resilience is created to face (and if need be) fight the ground reality. And, SKHM chooses to do all this right in the middle of the red light area because the only way sustainable social change may happen is when children growing up to be adults within the red light area demand a better life for themselves, and generations after, rather than have others hand it to them. SKHM is a program-based initiative; activities can be bundled under its four programs (Pampers, Nurture, Breakthrough and Dignity). SKHM is a frontline organisation which means that we work right in the centre of the red light area. We are a rights-based organisation that does not only mean that we hold our stakeholder’s rights as sacrosanct but that of our staff’s too. We are a participatory organisation; decisions are democratically taken by staff and stakeholders alike. We are an anti-human trafficking organisation.

SKHM runs four SAFE centres; two in Bowbazaar’s infamous Haadkata Gully and two in Sonagachhi (touted as Asia’s densest red light area). Safe Centres are also Educational Centres that start as early as 10.30am and go on till late in the night (11.30pm for the oldest centre and 8pm for the youngest). Imagine a single-room holding an entire school for children between 3-18 years; that’s what we are. All educational interventions are supported by psychosocial interventions that start as early as 3 years with Play Therapy Method. SKHM’s focus is to help heal emotional scars. Then take every child to a mainstream school. The base of education is to enhance a child’s interest to explore and excel on personal skills and competencies. Over time, we have started life-skill, leadership, livelihood-training and resilience-building programmes for women and youths of the community as well. By creating a strong mother's group, SKHM ensures a continuity of education and prevention of second-generation prostitution.

SKHM started work in Bowbazaar in October 2009. On March 4, 2010, it was formally registered as a “Not-for-Profit” organisation under Registration of Societies West Bengal Act XXVI of 1961. When it started its day-care learning centre-cum-crèche on November 2009, there were 16 (+) regular students.

Vision & Mission

Our Vision

A world that is peaceful, safe and free from all forms of violence where every woman and child can achieve their full potential.

Our Mission

To empower vulnerable women and children to live lives to their utmost potential with dignity and respect.

Our Strategies

1. Create a safe space for at-risk children—especially girls—whose mothers (WIPs) do not have a fixed home
2. Ensure that a child or adolescent’s right to education is met through compulsory school attendance and formal and non-formal teaching methods
3. Create a strong Mothers’ Group (WIPs) which ensures zero school drop-out rate within the community and prevention of trafficking and second-generation prostitution
4. Impart knowledge to children & adolescents about human rights and entitlements as citizens of India
5. Provide life-skill and vocational training to ensure a life of dignity