Forced Prostitution

Condemning families to India’s sex trade

Families in Kolkata’s Kalighat red light district struggle to break a tradition of prostitution passed down from mothers to daughters.

Ninety percent of sex workers’ daughters in India follower their mothers into prostitution.

Urmi Basu, Bengali woman who works with the prostitutes and their children in the Kalighat red light district in Kolkata, hopes that a young girl named Monisha does not become part of that 90 percent.

Monisha grew up in Kalighat, where her mother works as a prostitute. When she was six years old, Monisha came to Basu’s New Light shelter program, which was established to protect and educate young girls, children and women who are at high risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Four years later she is thriving in school. But her mother has come back, Basu says, and told her Monisha must return with her to their village.

“Generation after generation, all the women in that sub-caste, they become prostitutes. And nobody thinks that it’s unusual, that it’s something horrendous.”

— Urmi Basu, founder of New Light shelter, Kalighat, Kolkata, India

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Young girl walks down lane in Khaligat, India

Photo by Jon Rubinstein

“And I asked her ‘going back to the village meaning what?’” Basu says. But she already knows the answer. Monisha, like her mother and her aunts, belong to a caste of women who are destined to become prostitutes.

“The caste system is totally a water-tight compartment. You are just born into it. You cannot make any movement,” Basu says.

“And then generation after generation, all the women in that sub-caste, they become prostitutes. And nobody thinks that it’s unusual, that it’s something horrendous … and it has to be stopped, it has to be challenged.”

The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that 1.8 million children a year enter the commercial sex trade.

“Multiply [Monisha] by 1.8 million, and you understand the need for a new abolitionist movement,” journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote a June 1, 2011, column in The New York Times on Basu’s work in Kalighat.

“Monisha is this extraordinary girl, who did really well in school and is now about to be sent, we fear, to a life in prostitution,” Kristof says.

Young women from Monisha’s sub-caste as young as 13 years old are thrust into the sex trade in Kalighat, Basu says. By the time they are themselves mothers, they have very little ability to make their own daughters aspire to be anything but prostitutes.

It’s very common in Kalighat, Basu says, to see sex workers talking to their teenage daughters about the only option available to them at that age – to begin taking on clients.

“It is not that the transgenerational prostitution happens because they want to make it happen, it’s because … they have no escape,” Basu says.

Basu is confronting what Kristof calls “a whole social system that is impelling these daughters to follow their mothers.”

“It’s the outside stigma. It’s the fear of mothers that they’re going to lose their daughters if they educate them; that their daughters are going to look down on them. It’s the lack of opportunities that exist in red light districts,” he says.

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