New Light: Changing Futures and Providing Opportunity
Posted on July 03, 2012, by Holly Godwin, New Light
Reshmi, a natural beauty at age 12, sits down next to me and begins to tell me her story. Her mom left her at an early age with her grandmother. Reshmi believed she would begin attending school when she moved in with her grandmother. Instead, she cooked, cleaned, went to the market, and cared for her three younger brothers — more responsibility than any child under the age of 8 should have to do. Her grandmother tried to teach her how to read but only very little.
Reshmi breezes through this narrative as if her story is a normal one, but I know it is easier to tell the story quickly and with little detail than it is to dwell on the trauma of her past. Reshmi tells me she has an aunt who learned she was not attending school. The aunt lived in the Kalighat red light district and moved Reshmi to her home. New Light operates within that neighborhood and has a program to care for children whose mothers are in the sex industry.
Holly Godwin and a child at New Light (Photo courtesy Holly Godwin)
Once moved into the aunt’s home, Reshmi started attending New Light’s daycare program, eventually staying at New Light for 24 hours a day. It is when Reshmi began staying at New Light she also began attending school where she was finally taught to read. In addition to school, Reshmi began participating in drama classes, dance, and other activities. New Light not only provided safety, shelter, food, and clothes, but also provided Reshmi with opportunities that she would have most certainly been denied at home.
When Reshmi tells her story to me, she says that her aunt enrolled her into New Light. To gain clarification, I ask employees at New Light how Reshmi came to New Light. In turns out that while her aunt gave consent, the people at New Light actually brought Reshmi to the center. Employees knew the aunt to be a trafficker of women in the area, so when Reshmi moved into the aunt’s home, they acted quickly to get Reshmi into their care. The aunt most likely brought her own sister, Reshmi’s mother, into the industry as a sex worker and would not hesitate to condemn Reshmi to the same fate, especially because of Reshmi’s beauty.
Reshmi’s aunt would have trafficked her in one of two ways: sent her somewhere to be married, or sent her to Bangalore ‘to be with her mother.’ If Reshmi had been married, she would be considered chattel. She would have had children very early and in quick succession. She would have been kept in deplorable living conditions, forced to work in the house and eventually work outside the home to help provide for her children. Often times, the work found outside the home is as a sex worker.
If Reshmi had been sent to her mother, she would have entered the sex industry right away — again living in deplorable conditions, no time for school or activities other 12 or 13 year olds would participate in. The lack of education would have kept her in that state, she would have had nowhere to go, and her family would have been responsible for putting her in such a situation in the first place. She would have been doomed to be a sex worker until she could no longer attract clients.
Having walked around the red light district and seen the living conditions myself, I find it difficult to believe that a family member purposefully subjects a young girl to those conditions — a small room about 3 feet wide at 7 feet long, where the mother and three to four children sleep in one bed that takes up most of the room, high off the ground to avoid flooding; the father (if one is present) sleeping outside, animals roaming in the streets, trash piling up — all to make money. To save Reshmi and other girls from this fate, New Light works to keep young girls away from traffickers, including, heartbreakingly, the child’s own family.
As Reshmi grew, it was no longer safe for her to be within the Kalighat area, and she moved into the Soma Home. The Soma Home, also operated by New Light, is located outside the red light district. It houses about 40 girls that have very similar stories to Reshmi: abandoned by their mothers, left to be raised by a family member, not in school, and consequently targets for traffickers. Soma Home is a more secure location and is in a quieter part of Kolkata. Soma Home is a clean three-story building, and the atmosphere inside compared with the Kalighat area is night and day. Soma Home is filled with hope. The girls attend schools close by, away from potential traffickers. The girls participate in counseling sessions at the home, and also join in many different activities depending on their abilities and preferences. Some girls are training to be boxers through a professional coach, and many have participated in national level championships; others are training to be dancers or participating in dance therapy. The activities are designed as a release for the girls. Soma Home not only cares for the physical well-being of each girl, but puts a lot of resources into helping the girls recover mentally and emotionally from any trauma.
In order to attend Soma Home, the mother must give consent and agree to certain terms regarding visitation. Reshmi’s mother filled out the necessary paperwork. Reshmi’s aunt is not allowed at Soma Home, and if she wants to see Reshmi, Reshmi is brought to New Light where there are roughly 10 employees around at any given time. Reshmi’s mother is allowed to visit Reshmi at Soma Home during certain times; however, she is living in Bangalore and rarely visits, which is still very difficult for Reshmi. She becomes quiet during this part of the interview. The translator, who is also a counselor at Soma Home, tells me we have hit her soft spot. We move on to happier topics.
After Reshmi told me her story, I began asking her about her life. I asked if she liked school and wanted to continue her education. Reshmi lit up at once, flashing her beautiful smile. Of course she wanted to continue her education! I asked if she knew what she wanted to study in university. English was her answer. Reshmi knows the value of education and is determined to get as much as she can. She told me that even if New Light does not support her higher education, she would do whatever it takes to finish university. The good news is that New Light will support Reshmi in whatever she decides to study. New Light funds the children within their program in any vocational training or university course the child wishes. After completing their education, New Light helps with job placement.
While Reshmi wants to study English, she ultimately wants to be a dancer and loves participating in the dance therapy classes. Reshmi says the days when she dances are good days. The classes range from modern to traditional Indian and Bengali dances. Reshmi’s favorite dances are the traditional dances, and she wants to continue learning more. Several of the girls at Soma Home know the traditional dances and were actually sponsored on a trip to Europe to perform in various cities. The opportunities available to these girls would have never been possible in their previous life. Reshmi knows this. I asked her how she thinks New Light has changed her future. Reshmi responded that in addition to being able to attend school, she never would have been able to participate in all the sporting events New Light sponsors, or have been able to take dance lessons. She knows that New Light has changed her future for the better.
After sitting with Reshmi and other girls at Soma Home, I would say that not only has New Light changed the future of these girls, New Light has given them a future. If New Light had not stepped in and provided a place for these girls, most if not all would most likely end up in the sex industry treated like chattel, living like no one should be made to live. Now, they have dreams, goals, and plans for the future. Some girls want to be doctors, others nurses, others teachers, and some want to be social workers to help even more children. They now have all the opportunities most people feel entitled to. Opportunities that should never be denied to any child like attending school, learning to read, having a hobby, or something as simple as choosing what they want to be when they grow up.
Holly Godwin is an intern with New Light. she is a law student at the Regent University and did her undergraduate studies in International Relations from Brigham Young University.