It is difficult to imagine the lives of kids who dwell on footpaths in the red-light areas of Kolkata, an eastern bustling metro city in India. Most of their mothers forced into prostitution, earn their livelihood from flesh-trade, their so-called fathers are drug addicts, neck-deep into the illegal drug trade and child trafficking. These kids and women live in sub-human conditions, often subjected to sexual abuse, and tormented by hunger and extreme poverty. Debaleena Dutta, who along with a few of her colleagues voluntarily work to transform the lives and destiny of these kids and their mothers, tells me the grim reality of their existence.
Debaleena teaches in a college noticed these kids every day during her daily walk between the metro station and her college. She along with a few of her colleagues decided to do something worthwhile for these children. It started with casual interaction with these kids but a little bit of familiarity with these kids helped them to understand their background and the condition of their families. Under the government scheme of ‘’education for all’ these kids visited the nearby government-run primary school, but it was more for the mid-day meal that they received if they registered their attendance. The conditions that they were subjected to, they really didn’t have much time or scope for education. Hence trying to teach them did not seem to work. Debaleena and her friends instead decided to do something for the holistic development of these kids.
They initially started with 4-5 kids. It was not easy to convince their parents though, especially their mothers. It took a good part of talking and convincing them to persuade them to work with these kids. To start with, they organized a spot-drawing competition for these kids. To their pleasant surprise, instead of five, around 20 kids turned-out for the competition. Everyone had bought one or two friends with them, all living in the same area, under the same terrible conditions. For most of them, it was first time that someone had organized something for them that makes them feel children again. The spot-drawing competition was a big draw, and this also helped establish a connection between them and the kids.
Gradually as their interaction with these kids started to grow, they also understood that the kind of horrific vulnerability that hound these kids and their mothers. Take for instance Chumki’s case. Chumki is one of the small girls in the group of kids that Debaleena and her friends work with. Her happiness knew no bounds when her younger sister was born. Chumki danced with joy and shared her happiness during their evening session. However, to the horror of Debaleena and her friends, after seven days, Chumki’s sister suddenly disappeared. Child-trafficking is often heard in the elite corridors where ‘intellectuals’ discuss it, debate it and condemn it. But here it was bare, raw, like a full-blooded punch on your face and you could do nothing but feel helpless. Chumki was dumbstruck and in shock for many days.
Debaleena and her friends discovered that play therapy, music therapy worked very well on these kids and it also helped them in their learning process. They incorporated music, dance, yoga, drawing and theatrics in their engagement with these kids. They were also surprised to see the talent among these kids. While all of them exuded energy, they were also full of talent and given an opportunity they could do phenomenal things.
Now after three years of working with these kids, many mothers of these kids express a sense of gratitude for the work Debaleena and her friends have been doing. The mother does not want their kids to be forced into their profession. Instead, they want a better life for them. Ironically the lady who had opposed them the most during their early days has now become their biggest advocate. The insecurity of these women arose from the hard reality that struck them every day. A place where girls as young as 12-13-year-old are forced into prostitution, kids disappear overnight falling prey to child-trafficking, sexual abuse is common, drug abuse is rampant, the mothers naturally are worried about the safety of their kids and will be skeptical when any stranger approaches them. But now things had changed, and the mothers trusted Debaleena and her friends. In fact most of them now wanted help for themselves too. For instance, many of them were not educated and did not know how to read, write, or even sign their names. This makes them prey to even more exploitation. They wanted to learn some basic language skills and the ability to sign their names. They also had become increasingly more aware of self-hygiene and sanitation, thanks to various cleanliness drives run by Debaleena and her friends in their locality.
The three-year journey of Debaleena and her friends has not been without their share of difficulties. Being chased out of a local club, who had initially spared a room for them to conduct activities for the kids, but under some ‘pressure’ decided to pull the plug and throw them out. When a kind lady in the locality offered a room in her house to accommodate them, few local NGOs threatened them to discontinue their services for the children of that area. The NGOs are well-known to be working for the welfare of the women and kids in the red-light area of Kolkata; however, their threatening exposed the unholy nexus and underbelly that evaded many unsuspecting eyes in the city. Debaleena and her friends have continued despite these threats. They now feel the need to register themselves as a society that will give them some legal immunity and maybe even helping more like-minded people to join them and helps these women and kids improve the quality of their life.
Debaleena and her friends know that they have a long way to go but the resolve is firm and they march-on. They are a beacon of hope for hundreds today and will be for thousands tomorrow Just goes on to show how much each of one us can contribute if we push ourselves out of our comfort cocoons and show a little compassion.