Day 4 and 5 in India: Sonagachi

Day 4 and 5 in India: Sonagachi

On November 17, we traveled to Kolkata. Our group rose early to catch a morning flight from Delhi, and kept the cabin abuzz with our thoughts, stories, and wonderings. We anticipated that the next day and a half would be challenging; after a chance to get settled in Kolkata, we would meet with two experts on sex trafficking before spending some time with our host organization in Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red light districts.

Malini Bhattarcharjee

The afternoon opened with remarks by Malini Bhattarcharjee, the president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and a former member of the National Commission for Women. Dr. Bhattarcharjee spoke to the current legal debate around prostitution, and how the two “camps” of pro- and anti-legalization engage with each other and today’s current law. Rather than advance the conversation, she argued, the entrenched debate only distracts us from the exploitation and oppression of women who lack the agency to make true choices. From there, Ratnabali Chattarjee, a former director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre at the University of Calcutta, shared her perspectives on the current social constructions around prostitution, and how they have been shaped by British colonial perceptions and policies.

Ratnabali ChattarjeeRatnabali Chattarjee

Following the talk, our group met with our hosts at Apne Aap to witness the reality of prostitution and exploitation of girls and women in Sonagachi and visit the community center that Apne Aap has established within the red light district. There, our group was able to meet with some of the women that Apne Aap serves.

Sitting in circles with Apne Aap program participants

No one perspective can capture the multitude of stories, feelings, and experiences of that night. In the next couple days, I heard the following words and phrases as a way to refer to the evening spent in Sonagachi: Humanity. Crowds. Piece of meat. Tears. Intense. Protective. Trauma. Hurt. Pissed off. Personal. Hate and anger in the midst of connection and laughter. Foreign and familiar. Traffic. Community.

Members of Sonar Bangla, an Apne Aap self-empowerment group who have found dignified livelihood in food service, serve lunch

The next day offered a stark contrast. In the morning, our group joined some of the girls and women who work with Apne Aap at a local park. There, we had the chance to get to know each other, play, and dance. We learned about Apne Aap’s four rights model and the impact it has women’s lives. For lunch, Sonar Bangla, one of the self-empowerment groups cultivated by Apne Aap, provided a nutritious meal. This was a powerful demonstration of the alternatives women are able to create for themselves free of prostitution.

Emily Napalo Cavanaugh
Emily Napalo Cavanaugh
Director of Operations
Move to End Violence

Emily Napalo Cavanaugh (She, Her, Hers) is the Director of Operations for Move to End Violence. With a background in women’s rights and reproductive health, Emily supports the program’s development, including convening design and materials production, and runs many of the operational aspects of Move to End Violence. Learn More

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