Shadhika Shadhika


"Though we sit in the heart of a red-light district on the other side of the world, our conversation could be anywhere, with any group of teenage girls."


By Kim Burnett, Shadhika President and CEO

April 9, 2019

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Wait two minutes, the picture will come. Magic,” our guide tells the mother. I hand over the Polaroid picture, the image barely beginning to show. I started carrying a Polaroid camera with me on site visits about a year ago. As I was asking to take their photos for Shadhika, I realized that few of the girls and their families have hard copy photographs of themselves.

The girl’s mother breaks into a wide grin as the image of her and her daughter comes into view. We’re standing in a narrow lane in the Bowbazar neighborhood of Kolkata. The second largest red-light district in the city, it is home to over 12,000 prostitutes. Many come from families where sex work is a multi-generational occupation.

We’re here to visit the after-school program run by Jabala, a local NGO. Launched three years ago with Shadhika’s support, the program aims to break this multi-generational cycle by supporting the daughters of sex workers to complete their education, find mainstream employment, and stand up for their rights.

Unlike many of the other girls Shadhika works with, the young women at Jabala have been harder to get to know. Coming from a red-light district, they face a lot of discrimination which has made them cautious and protective. Only now are they starting to come into focus. Only now are they starting to let themselves be seen.

I am reminded of the discrimination they face when we pass by an English Medium School located in the neighborhood. This is a private school where all courses are taught in English, which can help the girls we support be better prepared for college or work. The annual cost to attend such a school is about $600, a small price for such a leg up on one’s future. I ask if any of our girls are enrolled there. I’m told that they would not be welcomed because they are from the red-light district. “How would they know?” I ask. “They just do,” is the reply.

When we get to Jabala, our session includes a meeting with the girls and their mothers. The girls have planned our time to pose a series of questions to us about the lives of girls in the U.S. From the first few questions, it’s clear they are using this opportunity to help persuade their mothers for more freedoms. “Do girls face discrimination for what they wear in your country?” “In your country, when and how do girls get married?” “Is it allowed for girls to have friendships with boys where you come from?” We try our best to answer honestly, sensitive to the cross-cultural implications of our answers.

After their mothers leave, we continue our conversation. They ask advice on personal hygiene and how to negotiate with their mothers. Though we sit in the heart of a red-light district on the other side of the world, our conversation could be anywhere, with any group of teenage girls.

And that’s ultimately all these young women want, to just be like any other girl. It’s taken three years, but the picture has come. Magic.

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