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A Letter from Kolkata
Inspired in part by Sold, in 2007 a BookBrowse member went to visit the
center in Koltata. Apne Aap (which means self-help in Hindi) is a
community-based initiative that began in the red light area of Mumbai in 1998.
On her return, she sent a letter to the many friends and family who gave
contributions for her to take with her. This is what she wrote:
It was an incredible journey in India and a memorable moving visit to Apne-Aap
in Kolkata (Calcutta). While in Kolkata I also visited the slum areas and the
red light district, where Apne-Aap has community centers. I had hoped to be able
to share some pictures but understandably that would just be another invasion of
their privacy. Instead, I will attach a picture of the surrounding area to
provide a context for this discussion.
The organization was extremely grateful for your contributions. It is
planning on using the contributions to help mitigate the circumstances of those
caught in prostitution. It offers leadership activities, education, and skill
building to help prevent inter-generational prostitution. It also seeks to build
bridges between grassroots activism and policy makers on issues related to
ending sex-trafficking. In the community centers of Apne-Aap that I visited,
they provided one hot meal a day, health and hygiene checkups (and referrals as
needed), literacy classes, vocational training, work on admission into
mainstream schools, after school help with homework to help stay in the schools,
dance and art therapy to deal with the trauma, and a safe haven at night to
protect children from buyers of prostituted sex. Without the latter, the
children must sleep underneath the beds while their mothers are having sexual
relations with the clients.
The workers of Apne-Aap also have an outreach program to those children in
the slum areas who are at high risk of becoming prostitutes or whose mothers are
trapped in the vicious cycle of prostitution.
One of the classes I attended at Apne-Aap was a biweekly training about
embroidery, candle making, painting eyeglass cases, and creating jute bags. The
dance therapy classes were not only to help the children to learn dance but also
to respect their bodies, which they have seen being disrespected in their
community. Other workshops included computer training, self esteem workshops,
and educational workshops on AIDS, violence, and sexually transmitted diseases.
One girl that I spoke with through an interpreter said that she was
trafficked by neighbors when she was barely 8 years old and then sold into a
brothel. She escaped at age 18 with two young daughters but was re-trafficked to
another red light area. She escaped a year again and through Apne-Aap has
started her own "betel" shop (a digestive snack). She is now determined never to
be forced into prostitution despite her poverty and volunteers in the center.
People have branded her as a witch and several times have tried to loot her
shop. However, she has stood firm through the confidence building and skills of
Apne-Aap and tries to educate young girls in the red light district as well.
What was particularly heartwarming was the open forum given to children of
prostitutes through art therapy. At one class, children were talking about how
they had never had an open discussion with anyone about HIV and AIDS. Many
thought their families were breaking the law by contracting HIV/AIDS and were
relieved to know that the violence and trafficking of their mothers was a crime.
Over half of the kids said that before they came to Apne-Aap, they did not know
that women and children could not be bought, sold, or raped legitimately.
On the other hand, walking in the red light area was a major eye opening
experience. Many of the women in prostitution (WIP) find it difficult to trust
anyone given their own experiences of exploitation by people they have trusted.
In addition, the streets were lined with pimps, brothel owners, and liquor
suppliers, many of whom have strong connections with the police, politicians,
and mafia. They are obviously distrustful of the Apne-Aap workers because they
don't want the women to be aware of their fundamental rights as the balance of
power could quickly change away from them.
The area was dilapidated, dingy, and unhygienic, with no proper drainage
system, toilets, or bathrooms. Young girls from about 10-25 years of age were
lined up on benches in brightly colored saris but looked tightly wrapped in an
emotional cocoon. One girl told me that after she was trafficked, the woman who
bought her took all the money for the first 6 months. She serviced about 7-8 men
per day. The rate was one dollar per "visit" and $4.50 if the client spent the
night. Now she earns about $2.50 a day. Of this, the brothel madam keeps half,
she spends 25 cents a day on food, and spends 50 cents on medicines and alcohol.
She tries to save 13 dollars a month to buy clothing, makeup, and some money to
send home to her son. Even though she is taking classes at Apne-Aap and meets
daily with counselors, she is still too afraid to refuse drunk clients or those
who won't wear condoms, for fear of physical retaliation and loss of income.
What became clearly apparent is the need to focus on sexually trafficked
girls specifically before they reach their mid 20's. These girls are forced into
slave-like conditions and serve up to 15-20 buyers /night with only one meal and
often talk about wanting to go home. The older girls (20-25) appeared to be in a
new phase where the socialization within the brothel has made the girls
dependent on drugs and alcohol. The brothel owners make sure that they have
children so they can't think of returning home anymore. Because of the repeated
violence and psychosocial trauma, they begin to see the small mercies meted out
by the kidnappers as larger than life. Despair, depression, and disease seem to
lead to a sense of hopelessness and the girls do not see a way out. As these
girls age, malnutrition, drugs, and alcohol dependency decrease their earning
capacity. Even if they want to leave prostitution, they don't have the life
skills or physical health to do so.
Apne-Aap works with all these women. It was a privilege to view their work.
On behalf of all the women and children I thank you for making a difference in
For more about Apne-Aap, please visit
- What is Lakshmis life like in her Nepal mountain home? What events
create the need for her to go into the city?
- Discuss the vignette entitled Everything I Need to Know Now. What do you
think of the cultural mandates that she must live by? Compare it to the vignette
of the same title that appears later when she is in the city. How does it
represent all the changes in her life?
- Did you suspect bad intentions on the part of the auntie and uncle who
escorted Lakshmi? Why do you think Lakshmi herself was not suspicious? What does
this show you about her character?
What things does Lakshmi wonder about on her journey? What ordinary objects
fascinate her? How does this innocence help seal her fate?
- How does Mumtaz gain control over Lakshmi? What tactics does she use to own
her both physically and emotionally? What punishment does she exact on girls who
disobey or betray her?
- Describe the other girls and women in the brothel. How do they accept or rail
against their lives there? What does Lakshmi learn from them? In the end, what
happens to them?
- For the festival of brothers and sisters, Harish gives Lakshmi a new pencil.
This small act of kindness undoes her.Why do you think this undoes her? How do
others reach out to help one another at the brothel?
- What does despair look like? How does Lakshmi prevent her own despair from
destroying her hope? Is it destroyed in others? How?
- What happens when Monica leaves the brothel to return to the family she has
supported? Do you think Lakshmis own ama would treat her the same way upon her
return? What about her stepfather? What makes you think so or not?
- What was the most disturbing part of this story for you? What facts crawled
under your skin and continue to haunt you? Do you think there is anything you
can do to help? What?
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