Hope in Sonagachi
Since 2010, the Mahima Homes have been pillars of hope in communities among India’s red light districts. Mahima is made up of a network of aftercare homes and transition centres that work to prevent re-trafficking and provide rehabilitation to rescued victims, both women and children of the sex trade.
Partners International spoke to social justice activist and Director of the Mahima Homes, Smita Singh to talk about children at risk, challenges in ministry and the climate of trafficking today.
Smita was recently in Canada raising awareness for Mahima’s Ashaloy Centre—an after school centre and medical clinic for children and women who live in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red light district. The ministry is currently working towards purchasing and relocating this centre so that it can have a permanent location to continue to care for the children and women of Sonagachi.
Can you tell us more about the children of sex workers—what are their lives like and how are they at risk?
Today as I was in the red light area where we have a drop in centre and a lady came to speak with me. She used to be a sex worker but she has given that life up a few years ago and is now in the business of ironing clothes. She is now married with three kids. This woman tells me that her husband is an alcoholic and he doesn’t help her or give her any money. She has to look after her three kids who are 5, 8, and 9 years old. She was in tears as we spoke. She asked, “Can you take my children? My husband doesn’t give me money, and what I make from ironing peoples clothes is not enough for me to feed my kids, send them to school or take care of them.” She continued, “You know the place where we live is not safe and my girls are growing up. I just want them to be safe.”
I don’t have a place to take these kids right now and it breaks my heart to see her children standing there listening to their mom beg me to take them in. Kids growing up in the red light area are at a very high risk of being trafficked. Even if they are not sold and exploited for money, many are sexually abused just by living there.
How does the Ashaloy Centre help the children of sex workers?
Ashaloy Centre is a drop in centre in Sonagachi’s red light district for kids in the area. We can not remove all of the kids out of the area, although I wish I could. This centre provides kids with a space in the evening while their mothers are with customers. Some of the things you could find kids doing at the centre include: getting academic help, taking computer classes, and working on conversational English. We also have a music therapist on site as well as an HIV and medical clinic that runs at the centre every Monday. It’s a very holistic program that ensures these kids learn how to keep themselves safe. Boys learn to respect women, despite living in an area where women are being treated very poorly on a daily basis and that’s what they grow up seeing. On any given day we’ll have around 45-50 kids at the centre.
The children’s home was set up because women who were given jobs in place of earning money as a sex worker would often go back to prostitution in the evening because they are still living in the area and the money they make in their new business is not enough to take care of their kids. By taking care of these children at the centre, we give mothers a better chance to remove themselves from prostitution by allowing them to just focus on their new business. We also found that many of our girls who were rescued had siblings, sisters or brothers, who were also very much at risk. We took in a lot of those kids as well.
What are some challenges you face with the Ashaloy Centre?
We have faced spiritual opposition while working in Sonagachi. We have been asked to vacate the premises given to us where we have our Ashaloy Centre. God has given us a temporary place through another organization working in that area; however, we are looking at purchasing our own property in the heart of the red light area. Praying that God would provide the funds.
What are some ways we can pray for the ministry?
This year has been a very different one from other years. The number of girls being rescued in Kolkata has gone down dramatically. Not that the children are not being trafficked. They are, but they are becoming very difficult to find. I ask you to pray that the police become more active in searching for these young girls in private apartments and hotels. Also that God raises more organizations that would come into the arena of investigation and rescue. The two main rescuing agencies have stopped doing what they did before, that is rescuing minor girls from brothels.
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