The Art of Living school helps Sonagachi's children break free
Sonagachi, one of the largest red-light areas in Kolkata, can weave a thousand different tales on life’s vicissitudes and the fight for survival. As grimy as the living conditions in Sonagachi are the emotional landscapes of its thousands of sex-workers - women who are often beaten and kept without food for days if they refuse to entertain men.
The marginalized women of Sonagachi
They are mostly brought to the brothels at a tender age, sometimes as young as 8 or 9, and forced into the flesh trade, like Reshma, who has seen the worst. However, she is motivated to ensure a very different and empowered future for her child, a girl.
“I wanted to become a nurse, but was forced into the sex trade. I have a daughter, and will make sure she never works in a brothel, is educated and lives her dream” - Reshma, sex-worker at Sonagachi, Kolkata.
And other women who are making a difference
But here are also women from within the area, like Tumpa Mondal, a part time employee at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Pushpa Mitra, who live in Sonagachi, creating safe learning spaces for children of sex-workers during peak hours of the sex-workers’ trade.
“You are not only fighting the system, you are going against taboos, beliefs, and against an age-old practice where women are treated solely as ‘objects of pleasure’,” emphasizes Tumpa.
Tumpa married her husband, who works as a bus conductor, against the wishes of her family. She rented a room in Sonagachi, the only accommodation they could afford. Though she and her husband could have moved out of the area to safer, conducive and cleaner environs in the city when their economic condition improved, she chose to stay. The opportunity to work with the children came about when Tumpa joined The Art of Living campaign in the area.
While several NGOs are active in the area, conducting regular medical and sanitation camps and providing education and distributing supplies in the area, Thumpa feels it is pivotal to ease the inner emotional turbulence of the women and children residing here.
The Beginning – of a new life
The Art of Living conducts programs for alleviation as well as for individual empowerment in areas with marginalized demographies, including in prisons. For six months - from July 2012 - a team of Art of Living volunteers comprising of professionals and businessmen, struggled to just gain access into the area to meet sex-workers. It was only when, through a friend, team mentor Subhra Ray met the Secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanway, a well-known NGO comprising of sex workers themselves, that she was able to propose these programs in the area and organise a medical camp.
In 2013, Subhra, Arnab Acharjee, Suranjana Sanyal and Anup Agarwal began other interventions. A unique module, comprising free medical camps, nutritious food, stress-management and motivational training was introduced to empower sex workers and their children and guide them to a greater sense of self-worth and opportunity.
What started as a journey in 2012 with barely 4-5 participants and immense opposition from the residents of the area, has now blossomed into regular engagement through various activities.
Engagement with residents were continual, through the 24 medical camps organised in a two-year period. Also, 30 children underwent the ART Excel and 50 women participated in the Happiness Programs for stress-alleviation and individual empowerment and to restore their sense of self-worth and dignity.
“Some of these children are still too young to understand their reality, and we hope they never really find that out either”, explains a concerned Tumpa. “It is a fact that can debilitate their self-confidence,” shares a concerned Subhra.
Loss of confidence is exactly what the school hopes to counter. It works to preserve the children’s sense of worth and to celebrate their talents and skills.
“I am happy, that my child is being nurtured, and he is imbibing the right values because of this school!” said Kajol a sex worker, whose son attends the evening classes.
Udaan – the flight to a brighter tomorrow
The informal center will run along with the residential school for these children, under project Udaan.
Udaan is a culmination of the on-going work in Sonagachi. The project took its first big leap in December 2015, when the foundation stone of a CBSE school for these children was inaugurated by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder, The Art of Living, and West Bengal’s Higher Education Minister Mr. Partha Chatterjee. The free school, to be built in Pailan, is an hour’s drive from the city.
Multiple interventions, rekindled dreams
The school will provide primary education, food and training to children. A key feature will be giving them vocational skill training in order to make them economically self-reliant. In the first year, the school will admit 50 girl children aged between 5-10 years, and 100 more are planned to be enrolled every year.
The aim is to steer these children away from the stressful environments that they are exposed to from a very young age, and instill in them the confidence and self-esteem that has diminished due to circumstances. Children, often, due to exposure to unhygienic environments, fall prey to disease. The school will provide a healthy environment for children to grow up in.
While people at the heart of Sonagachi and Kolkata are working to implement the project, funding is pouring in from volunteers from all corners of the world from Overseas Volunteer for a Better India (OVBI).
Ajay Tripathi is one of the donors of the school being built. “We have to act fast and take proactive steps for these children who are at an immediate risk, especially the girl children, who will be forced into the trade soon,” he says with concern.
Somewhere in the inglorious alleys of Sonagachi, Reshma eagerly awaits that day when her daughter will walk a new path, welcome a new life, and weave a new dream.