Shadhika Shadhika

Jabala Action Resource Center

November 6, 2017

By Kim Burnett, Shadhika President and CEO

 

Their faces stare down on us, silently watching our work. Tagore, Nehru, Gandhi, and other Indian men of note whose names I do not know. I am sitting in a small second floor community room in the heart of the Bowbazar community, home to the largest Red-Light District in Kolkata. The space has been donated for use to Jabala Action Resource Center, Shadhika’s partner in Kolkata, for an after-school program for the daughters of sex workers.  The male leaders on the walls are leftover decorations from a political party meeting that has been held in the space earlier in the day.

With Shadhika’s support, Jabala launched this effort six months ago, so this is the first time we are meeting the young women who are participating in the program. They are a group of twenty young girls, between the ages of 14 to 18. All but five are the daughters of prostitutes, and only two still have fathers present in their homes. All attend school nearby, but keep where they live to themselves, fearful of being ostracized by their peers.

While the daily curriculum of Jabala’s program is to provide high-quality tutoring for the girls in English, computers, and math to help them complete their education, these are merely a means to achieve the core focus of the program which is to break the cycle of sex trafficking by teaching the girls about their rights, building their self-confidence, and empowering them pursue their own dreams for their future.

Unlike other students I have met for the first time, these young women are not shy but carry a bearing of those who have already seen much in their short lives.  While there’s a caution about them, their gaze is direct and intense. With little hesitation, confidently ask us about our lives, where we’ve come from and what is Halloween. We trade off singing American folk songs. We sing, “This Land is Your Land,” forgetting the second verse, and they sing “We Shall Overcome,” not missing a beat and drawing tears to our eyes with their earnestness.

We ask them about the men on the walls, and whether they think they should add famous women leaders too. “Who should we add?” We ask. They fall silent and it becomes clear they don’t know of anyone. “What about Malala?” I ask. They don’t know who she is. So, we tell them Malala’s story. They silently nod as I explain her journey. Together we decide that they will learn about other famous women like Malala and that next time we come to visit, they will make a presentation to us about those that inspire them.

After a while, it is time to say goodbye. We climb down the dark staircase and head out into the street. As we are walking towards the main road, the neighborhood lanes are lined with women waiting for their next customers. The evening ‘business’ is just getting underway.

I catch the eye of one woman who cannot be much older than those we just left upstairs. Her gaze is direct, but without life. I find myself overwhelmed by the realization of how thin the line is between one life and another. And how little it takes to make all the difference.

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