How girls in Kolkata’s red-light districts are moving towards a bright future

NGO Vihaan works at the grassroots level to fight human trafficking and exploitation. It rescues and rehabilitates girls from Sonagachi, Chetla-Kalighat, and other red-light areas and provides them with training and dignified livelihood opportunities  

Partho Burman
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NGO Vihaan provides girls with dignified livelihood opportunities

NGO Vihaan provides girls with dignified livelihood opportunities. Pic: Partho Burman

Nabamita grew up in West Bengal's Sonagachi, one of the biggest red-light districts in the world. While her mother is a commercial sex worker, Nabamita charted a different life as she was saved from inter-generational prostitution by Vihaan, an anti-human trafficking organization offering medical attention and legal assistance to girls rescued from vulnerable areas.

Members from Vihaan spotted Nabamita while patrolling the red light area to ensure that young girls are not exploited sexually. While Nabamita had dropped out of class 10 due to financial constraints, Vihaan supported her by giving professional training.  

“I am delighted to be where I am today. I am independent and living a life of dignity. When I look back, I cannot believe the transformation my life has undergone,” says Nabamita, now working as a chef at Mintelaa Café.  

Born and brought up in the dark lanes of Sonagachi, she is well aware of the murky world of human trafficking and trade. Her mom doesn’t stay with them because she is a part of it. Nabamita stays with her father in a rented house in Sonagachi. “Owing to financial problems, I couldn’t finish my schooling but I am going to resume my studies. I want to support my father with a dignified job,” she says. 

Also Read: How Shilpi Singh is taking on human traffickers and rescuing women in Bihar's badlands

Nabamita works as a chef at Mintelaa Café. Pic: Partho Burman 

The story of 23-year-old Preeti is similar. A class 12 dropout from Shyambazar A V School, she says, “People get shocked when they hear the term red light area. I was raised in one, so I am aware of what happens there. For us, it is life as usual. I felt guilty about dropping out of school but not about being a resident of Sonagachi.”

Changing lives

As soon as she learned about Vihaan assisting dropout girls in finding employment and resuming schooling, she contacted them. She was advised to join the ICICI Foundation. She underwent 65 days of training for free and was selected directly for the job.

“I am working with PNB Metlife. I am very grateful to Vihaan for giving me such an opportunity. After realising this, many parents have started allowing their daughters to leave the house and get professional training to become financially independent,” Preeti tells 30Stades.  

Vihaan works at the grassroots level to fight human trafficking and other forms of abuse and exploitation. It interacts with communities and groups to gather information about children and youngsters who are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, bonded and child labour, domestic servitude and beggary. True to its name, which means ray of light, Vihaan gives new hope to people.

They rescue, and rehabilitate girls and assist in prosecuting the offenders. They provide these girls with educational support, need-based assistance, domain-specific training and eventually employment.   

“Girls who do nothing after Class 10 are easy targets for traffickers who force them into sexual exploitation, says Vihaan CEO Samir Baptist. 

Also Read: Impulse NGO Network: How Meghalaya’s anti-trafficking warrior has helped save over 72,000 lives from slavery

Vihaan offers skill-building and employability for all survivors of human trafficking or those who are very vulnerable. We link them with employment and are trying to give those more opportunities, he adds.

Vihaan CEO Samir Baptist. Pic: Partho Burman

According to him, the uniqueness of Vihaan lies in the end-to-end work for addressing human trafficking.

Vihaan is not only rescuing the girls but also ensuring that they become champions in the same community from where they have been trafficked.

Vihaan has a team that identifies the victims and another team provides immediate trauma counselling and medical assistance to the rescued girls. As per the mandate, they ensure their safe shelter within 24 hours. Their team of advocates works very closely with the Public Prosecutors to ensure that the perpetrators are put behind bars. Typically, each perpetrator is involved with the trafficking of around 50 girls a year.

Ray of hope

The main objective of the programme is to ensure that these girls have a sustainable livelihood opportunity, which reduces their vulnerability. Besides, the educational program is aimed at girls who drop out from classes 7 to 10. The organisation ensures that they come to the learning centre and go back to the school again.

“It is common to find parental involvement in human trafficking. They instantly refuse to accept their saved child fearing repercussions from society. That’s where we ensure their rehabilitation outside the family,” informs Baptist.

The average age of these girls is between 14 and 23.  The organisation has impacted more than 60 girls in its three project areas: Kolkata, South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas. Education for girls under the age of 17 is the top focus. If she decides not to pursue education, then they are given domain-specific training and placed in the finance sector, cafeteria, beauty parlours, hospitals or entrepreneurship.

Also Read: Rescue Foundation: How Triveni Acharya saved over 6,000 girls from forced prostitution

Vihaan has tied up with Head Turners Academy for its training programmes. It provides basic beautician training for four months and also gets these girls placed at beauty salons, parlours and government-registered spas in Kolkata. There are a few girls who wish to get into the hospitality sector or the kitchen or into the services.

preeti mehra
Preeti is working with PNB Metlife. Pic: Partho Burman

“We have tied up with Tiny Bakery and Mintelaa Café, who offer thorough training and placement throughout all of their city café outlets. To get placement, we are attempting to collaborate with Big Day Café and McDonald's. The New India Foundation offers advanced training and domain-based training for girls who wish to get into the front office job, as a receptionist or the back office,” says a Vihaan executive.

A few of them are entering the banking industry. 

“These girls are being placed thanks to our partnerships with the ICICI Foundation, PNB Metlife, mPokket and HDB Financial Services. In addition to incentives, the girls make between Rs. 12,000 and Rs. 17,000 a month. These are some of the options available to girls in Kolkata,” adds the executive.            

Multiple livelihood options

Every girl undergoes three to four-month training. Girls from rural areas in the districts of North and South 24 Parganas are also trained to make a living through organic farming, horticulture, pisciculture (rearing fish for sale), or small-scale home-based tailoring. The majority of the Mithakhali girls in the South 24 Parganas area are drawn to tailoring.

“We establish market linkages for them. We obtain orders from the market and the girls create finished goods for the big label retailers,” says another Vihaan official. 

“They resell the finished products and generate a respectable income from it,” he adds.

Fatima Kazi runs her unit at Mithakhali. Pic: Partho Burman

Fatima Kazi, a 29-year-old resident of Mithakhali, South 24 Parganas district, says she has undergone sewing classes and is now skilled in creating maxis, frocks, kids' briefs, petticoats and blouses. She can finish as many as a dozen garments a day, depending on the demand. “I am glad that I earn through respectable means to support my family,” she adds.

Fatima, who was an orphan, realised that she had made a mistake by marrying young. She says she didn't have any to guide her. “I married at fifteen. We lived in abject poverty for the entirety of our lives since my husband had no money. I've learned that a lack of resources makes girls an easy target for human trafficking. It was a blessing that I had Vihaan.” 

The organisation has now started accepting new batches of students. Two groups of twenty girls each from Kolkata's Sonagachi and Chetla-Kalighat red light areas have started professional training in the last week of April. They will start working on domain-specific tasks once the foundation course is completed.

“All girls are happy because of their job. They are our ambassadors and through word-of-mouth, other girls in vulnerable areas are asking about us. We now have to add more batches. We have post-placement support to ensure that they don’t go back to the old situation,” says Baptist.

(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)

Also Read: How Prerana is helping thousands of girls get out of intergenerational sex trade

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