Convening 3: Kolkata, India -- Day 6/7 -- Saving Our Daughters

Two nights ago, our host organization Apne Aap brought us to a neighborhood in South Kolkata called Sonagachi.  We left our cars on the busy main thoroughfare and went by foot down the dark and narrow side streets.  As we walked, we took in the community life unfolding around us, women cooking dinner over an open fire, children playing in the dirt, men washing at a spout, others praying.  But most of all, we saw woman after woman lining the crowded streets, standing alone or in pairs, waiting.  And beyond them, men stood with arms crossed; watching them; watching us. 

Sonagachi is the largest red light district in India and all of Asia.  The girls and women on the street ranged from about aged 13 to 35.  They are predominately poor, low-caste girls and women who have been trafficked to this area from across India and prostituted for 300-1500 Rupees ($6-$30).  The girls and women we saw, and in a few cases spoke with, are controlled by the pimps and middle-men on the street who turn a profit from the sale of other human beings and enforce the system through violence.  Invisible to us, but imprisoned in the brothels just above our heads, were girls and women being serially raped and restricted from ever venturing outside.

We left the area feeling great sorrow and heartbreak for these girls and women and for a world that permits this reality.  We also felt a sense of connection; looking into the eyes of these girls and women as we passed we saw ourselves, our sisters, our daughters.  We were struck by the immense capacity of the human spirit to adapt to the most hellish of situations, and recognized the resilience and strength of these women that allows them to survive. 

The next day, we had the opportunity to sit in circle with currently and formerly prostituted women who are being organized by Apne Aap to fight for their right to education, safe and independent housing, sustainable and dignified livelihood, and legal protection.  Apne Aap means “for yourself” or “self-help” and that aptly describes the organization’s approach to survivor advocacy, bringing women together in small groups of 10 to support each other in their own empowerment.

Sitting with five of these groups, an Apne Aap organizer, and interpreter, we listened to survivors telling their stories, what brought them to Apne Aap and how they are organizing for their rights and the rights of their children.  For many of these women, their focus was on breaking the inter-generational nature of prostitution.   They said, “whatever has happened to us has happened, but can you save our daughters?” 

My group sat with young mothers who are not immediately focused on getting themselves out of prostitution, but who have made the incredibly painful choice of sending their daughters away to a mission school to protect them.  This is necessary because when men come to buy them and find a girl aged 10 or 11, they want to rape the daughter instead.   And, when mothers turn 35 and begin to become too old to be considered attractive, they are forced to replace themselves with their daughters. 

We wept along with a young mother who told us she had sent her daughters away for their own safety and had not been able to see them in months.  The pain of that sacrifice was palpable, as was the love these mothers had for their daughters. 

Apne Aap is committed to securing education and creating options for dignified and sustainable livelihoods for girls at greatest risk of being prostituted.  Another group of us met with these girls, who were a passionate, powerful group of young sisters, with high aspirations for themselves and a shared mission to dismantle the prostitution industry that enslaves their mothers. 

Jackie Payne

Jackie Payne is the Director of Move to End Violence. Jackie began her career in post-apartheid South Africa, working on issues related to gender equality, women’s health, and economic empowerment. More about Jackie >