On The Road Blog
Women Make It Happen: Preparing Girls to Lead
There’s nothing like walking into a red-light district, a place where your taxi driver won’t go, and having everyone greet you with a warm smile and respect. Each red-light district has its own particular quirks, dangers, challenges, and opportunities—but when Srabani Sarkar of South Kolkata Hamari Muskan walks down the back alleys of the red-light area in Kolkata, each person she encounters is a friend and ally. Walking through those alleys with Srabani last month was an experience I’ll never forget.
Hamari Muskan works with children living in the red-light district of Kolkata and empowers them to realize their rights. Working in some of the most challenging situations, Hamari Muskan is truly making a difference. Through its day center, the organization provides a safe place for children of sex workers to learn, play, and find community. Children learn to express their emotions and experiences through dance, photography, and drawing; they take field trips to explore the rich history of their city; they learn basic self-defense so they can protect themselves in worst-case scenarios; and their critical-thinking skills are always engaged through academic support and group projects.
Hamari Muskan supports the children holistically, even beyond the walls of the center. When there’s a parent-teacher meeting at school, a staff member goes to the school with the child and parent. When a child misses even one day at the center, the staff check in at the child’s home to see if everything is all right and if there’s anything they can do to help. The mothers, and now even some of the fathers, are also being supported through group counseling, which is improving the children’s lives outside the center. The children also receive regular counseling.
What I found most impressive about Hamari Muskan were the systems the staff have developed to monitor the emotional well-being of the children, and how they carefully and consistently use this information to improve their programs. Not only is the center a safe space for the children to come and learn, it’s also a place where they are nurtured to grow into responsible and healthy individuals.
Before meeting with the children, I sat down with staff to learn about the challenges that the children face in their daily lives. The mothers of the children work mostly as sex workers in the red-light district and often live their lives out of only one room. When the children aren’t at the center or at school, they are with their mothers—even while their mothers are working.
Sometimes the children share the bed with their mothers while the mothers are seeing clients, or wait at the doorway of the room. In an environment like this, the staff of Hamari Muskan said, the children are always vulnerable to abuse and emotional scarring. They said that when the children leave the center, they just “shut down” to protect themselves.
After hearing such heartbreaking stories, the last thing I expected to see when I arrived at the center were children full of joy, confidence, and curiosity. I didn’t realize that this was also serving as a girls’ empowerment organization, but after climbing crumbling stairs to the top room where after-school enrichment activities were in full swing, I was met by a group of older girls who were ready with real questions and smart answers.
The center was full of children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, with staff working with small groups of children based on their ages. The seven girls making up the oldest group, ages 11 to 14, were being supported by staff but were also helping to manage and teach the younger children.
On their own initiative, this group of girls started a monthly newspaper where they report on the happenings of the community, create beautiful accompanying images, and post the newspaper as a poster on the wall of the center.
When I asked the children what they like about coming to the center, they said that it is their family, a place where they feel like they belong and can be themselves. When I asked what their hopes are for the future, the girls said that they are ready to take over the center when the director and older staff members are ready to retire. They then asked me how it feels to visit and work with groups like theirs.
It feels inspiring. It feels hopeful. It feels humbling. It feels like the future.
Srabani isn’t just making things happen for the children of the red-light district, she’s making it possible for the girls of her organization to make a bright future happen for themselves.
As I think about International Women’s Day, I think of Srabani and the amazing young women she’s supporting through her work. The girls of South Kolkata Hamari Muskan are courageous and strong young women who are already making an impact and are poised to become leaders in their community.