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Shadhika Shadhika

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"With each story, I witness their transformation."

Secrets

By Kim Burnett, President & CEO

January 6, 2020

They have a secret.

They cannot tell you where you live, for fear you will shun them.

They cannot tell you about their family, for fear you will judge them.

They cannot tell you about their lives, for fear you will betray them.

They have a secret.

A secret so profound, it has created a chasm between them and the rest of the world, their voices stifled by the abyss, rendering them powerless and unseen.

For these are the daughters of sex workers, living in the largest Red Light district in Kolkata.

Over the past three years, Shadhika has partnered with Jabala Action Research Centre, to run an afterschool program in this community. On the surface, this program helps these young women complete their education and escape the cycle of sex work and trafficking.  But one only has to look a little deeper to see that it is bridging the divide.

This becomes apparent to me as we sit with them and listen to their stories of the past year. The room is cool and fresh after a winter monsoon rain and they are bundled up against the “cold” – a mere 70 degrees.

At first they tell us of their studies, their Spoken English, Computer, and Math classes. But then they tell us about how they went as a group to their elected officials to petition for more streetlights and trash bins in their community to make it safer and cleaner. They describe how some dismissed them outright but how they persisted until they found one who took them seriously and worked with them to get these improvements made.

Another tells us how she stood up to a boy who was harassing her on the street and went with her mother to the police station to file a report. Story after story flow out, some big, some small, all examples of how they have stood up for themselves in this past year. In each instance, their actions have come from having this safe space together to share their stories, learn about their rights and gain confidence to stand up for themselves. With each story, I witness their transformation.

Towards the end of our visit, they tell us about a rally they have held for girls’ equality in a nearby community. Holding banners and posters and presenting street plays and dances, they attracted a large crowd.

In and of itself, this rally is remarkable, but what makes it all the more so is where it was held – in the heart of the college district. Home to Kolkata’s intellectuals and the highly educated, it has a rich history of social action and protest. It is where generations of Kolkatans have come to be heard. Though just a five-minute walk from their home, for many of the girls, it was a world away.

Until now. As they describe the event, I ask them if they were nervous to perform in front of such a large crowd. “At first,” one shares, “but then we were together.”

To climb out of a hole, one needs a ladder, made up of many rungs.

Together, they have a secret.

A secret they are now choosing to tell.  

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