adventures of a fearless (mostly) globe trotting seeker...
wondering, wandering, barefoot, nomadess

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sex Trafficking in the City of Joy


Calcutta, Jan 16th

“I couldn’t believe what they did to her. Even when animals hunt, they don’t mete out such brutality”. Six men had brutally attacked and raped a 23-year old woman on a bus in Delhi. She had been at a theater watching Life of Pi and was taking a private bus home with a male friend when she was brutally raped and assaulted with an iron rod for nearly 40 minutes. Her companion was also beaten and they were robbed and then thrown from the moving bus. Before she passed away in urgent care she told a magistrate, “The accused should not be hanged but burned to death”.

“Women under Attack” screams the headlines of the newspaper the man next to me is reading on the flight to Calcutta. I have been coming to India for seven years and I have never seen so many headlines filling newspapers about women’s rights. In the past it seemed like the country turned a blind eye to women’s issues and especially sexuality. I am flying into Calcutta to propose a women’s empowerment program for sex trafficked women in Sonagachi, the sex trafficking ghetto. As an American, I have tried not to step on too many toes since I am from a different culture and have not wanted to seem like the bad cliché, the white woman coming to save all the ethnic people. It’s not like I have all the answers of course. But I do understand the problem. Beneath the cultures, different food and clothing, a woman is a woman and her sex is often suppressed and violated. Mine has been. We are all one nation of sisterhood when it comes to protecting women from sexual violence.

Before I left for Calcutta, I had lunch with upper class Indian friends at a cyber café in Hyderabad and the Delhi rape and women’s rights were one of the main topics of conversation. My friend Sonia is a school principle and she shook her head as she took a bite of naan bread and veg curry, “There is so much we don’t see, don’t want to look at”. Three years ago, she was less interested in the subject of women’s empowerment, especially for the lower classes. As usual, I am outraged at sexual violence against women. As an American, I am more impatient than my Indian friends, I want change and justice in the world to happen now.

I am anxious about going into the sex trafficking slum. It is a great wound in the world of sexual suffering and triggers my own memories and fears from the past. I am worried if I will make it out intact. Not because it is dangerous (which it is) but because I have done activist work before that left me in deep depressions that made me sick for months. Still, I am driven to do this. A friend from home sent me a message this morning on facebook saying that I am a brave soul. Bravery is only possible in the face of fear. Courage is when we face the fears and still take action.

“Welcome to the City of Joy” the sign says as we disembark the plane and walk across the hot tarmac to the Calcutta airport. The sky is smoggy grey, smothering out the pale outlines of palm tree that stand like ghosts in the distance. I already feel like I need a shower from the thin film of dirt and sweat covering my body. In the airport toilets I grimace and try not to breath as I use a squat toilet and rinse myself with water from a bucket and plastic measuring cup. This is called “balti bath”.  As an American, I just want the comfort of toilet paper. I drag my suitcase behind me and step out of the airport into the chaos of honking horns and traffic that moves like the arteries of the human blood system. Beat up ancient yellow ambassador taxis and new white indy cars jockey for position and the blaring of horns is the only way they signal their movements. I take my life in my hands as I cross through the mayhem to get to the taxi stand across the street from the airport. Drivers and guides descend on me like raw meat in a shark tank. One grabs the handle of my roller suitcase and quickly begins walking away with it. My driver has chosen me. I follow behind him hoping he won’t try to rip me off too much on the fare now that he is holding all my belongings hostage. We get to his dented ambassador and negotiate the fare.
“Ma’am you will be very happy when you arrive hotel. You will be happy and I will be happy. 750 rupees ma’am”, he bobbles his head from side to side and smiles a huge grin exposing betel-stained teeth. That’s roughly $15 American dollars. I am tired from the flight and don’t feel like a struggle. “Ok, but 750 finished! No more rupees!” I say firmly with my best school teacher voice. I show him the address written on a scrap of paper.
“Sonagachi. Do you know?” he looks a little confused.
“Sonagachi?” he bobbles his head again.
“Yes, Sonagachi”.
He must be confused why a white woman tourist would be going to the red light district, to the sex trafficking slum. He shrugs his shoulders and throws my suitcase in the trunk and we slowly inch our way through the afternoon traffic of an overcrowded city. From the windows of the taxi I can see the parade of naked humanity. Cows, trucks painted bright colors, women in bright saris, old men in filthy rags. The taxi lurches to a dead stop in the congestion and I am privy to watching a group of teenage boys taking a bath in an open street pump. Lathering bright white soap into their black hair and dark skin. They grin wildly at me as they lather under their armpits.

I call my friend Marcia back in America from my Indian cell phone. I can hardly hear her voice with all the blaring horns around me. Marcia is working with my organization Courage to Rise on our campaign to “Stop Sexual Violence and Abuse”. We made a short documentary about her story of being sexually assaulted and her recovery of her power through yoga. “Did you hear about the college student who was drugged and carried from one frat house to another to be raped again and again?” I had not been watching American news since I landed in India a week ago. “No, but it’s the same everywhere isn’t it? It is time for us to stand up and speak out about the problem and teach other women the tools to heal”.  I shake my head and feel exaughsted at the enormity of the issue of sexual violence right under the skin of humanity. I feel tired and it gives me energy for the struggle to change.

The cab finally stop near a torn up petrol pump and the driver says, “Sonagachi”. A pretty woman with a bright yellow top that fits snugly to her breasts and bright red lipstack stares at me with indifferent black eyes. She must be one of the prostitutes, all the Indian women I have met before do not wear tight shirts and such bold makeup. I look back into her eyes and wonder where she came from, and how she became a prostitute? She is so young and beautiful and I shudder to think of a mans eyes looking at her beauty as a sexual favor to be bought and used. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, as the old saying goes. I get out of the cab and follow my guide down a twisting alley. It is like being swallowed by a snake, the twisting alleyways zig zag and double back on themselves, the streets not wide enough for cars. Women in traditional saris and modern western jeans and tight shirts line the streets as children play soccor in the trash and rotting vegetables. There is a lot of suffering and poverty in the City of Joy. The alleys are lined with shops selling chai, bright plastic bags of potato chips and hot fried snacks. The air is stifled here since the buildings are tall and lean in on each other, letting in only small patches of the grey smoggy sky. We find the Durbar building, and I wait to meet with Dr Jena, the head of the organization. This is the third year I have come to work with Durbar in Sonagachi. Durbar distributes condoms and health care to the sex workers and fights for their rights with the government. Prostitution is legal in Calcutta and they have a sex workers union in the communist party. Because it is legal, they have lower HIV rates than the other major sex trafficking city in India, Mumbai. Without fear of prosecution, the prostitutes get more regular check ups with doctors and use condoms. The first two years I came to teach yoga to the women who were sex trafficked as way for them to heal their bodies, minds and spirits and feel more self-esteem. Last year I brought my kalari Indian martial arts teacher Laxman to help teach the sex workers self defense. Even though the last two years had been good experiences, the women didn’t continue to practice yoga much after I left back to America. Dr Jena had suggested I create a longer lasting program for the children in the schools Durbar had created for the children of the sex workers. The idea was to train some of the women who were in sex trafficking to become yoga teachers and teach the classes to the kids in the schools. I had gone back to America and raised the money for this program. I had tried emailing Dr Jena to confirm that I was coming to teach the program but had not heard back. I have found from years of trying to get things done between America and India, that nothing seems to happen until I fly here and speak in person. So I am waiting on a hard bench in the Durbar building hallway to speak with Dr Jena and get approval for this program. Women in saris stand in the hallway laughing and chatting. They smile and wave at me and I wave back. Friendships can be formed without words. A woman comes by with a pot of chai and pours me some into a tiny clay pot. These clay pots are completely bio-degradable and make the chai taste more earthy, it is my favorite chai in India to be served in clay. I am not satisfied with the Indian portion, where is my American super-sized caffeine? I hold my clay pot out for two refills and the woman with the silver tea pot laughs at me.
After an hour in the hallway, I am ushered into Dr Jena’s office and he tells me he is glad I was able to raise the money for the project. One of the schools for the children is just outside of the city and is a hostel where they also live.
“It is too difficult for them to study here in Sonagachi. It is too noisy and their mothers have to do sex work in their homes so it is best for the children to live somewhere they can focus on studying”. I remember the first year I came, one of the woman sat in the front row of my yoga class and fixed me with an intense stare, she wanted me to see her. I sat with her after class and asked her about her life. I was filming for a documentary to tell these women’s stories to open the worlds eyes to the lives and struggle everyone wanted to ignore. Through bearing witness, we become aware of suffering and can call for change and reform.
“My husband died and I have to feed my daughter alone’ the translator explains.
“My daughter lives with my parents many hours away and I do the sex work and send the money for them to take care of her. They are ashamed of me and the work I do, they will not let me see my daughter anymore”.
Big tears began to fall from her intense eyes. I held her hand and my heart broke open with hers and we cried together. I had been a young single mother who struggled to feed my child as well. I knew the pain a mother feels for her child, the desperation to help them survive against all odds when the odds are stacked against you and your child. It is difficult enough to go hungry yourself, it is impossible to see your own child go hungry as a mother. The truth is, I too had used my body to make money when I didn't feel like I had any other options. I had carried the shame for many years until I was able to heal through yoga and begin to feel my power again as a woman in my body. I am here to do some small thing to help reach out a hand to lift another woman up from the darkness. It is part of my own ongoing healing process to try to help share with these women the yoga that helped me find my voice, feel my worth and change my life. People say, "You are doing such good work". The work i do to help others is really for my own benefit. 

Dr Jena fixes the date for me to come back and teach yoga to the children of the sex workers. I will teach the older children around 15-16 years old who have a strong interst in yoga to become teachers and lead classes to the younger children while I am gone. My organization, Courage to Rise will send monthly salary for the teachers and that will help them get out of the cycle of sex trafficking that traps generations into sex slavery here in Sonagachi. From interviewing sex trafficked women for the last 2 years here, so many of them are the children of sex workers who never had a chance to get out of this sex slum. Many were born, live and will die here. “It is easier to train the children who are not so set in their ways” Dr Jena tells me. I will also have a similar program for the adult women to transition from sex work to teaching yoga classes. It will be a 6 month program and we will see if the continue the classes after I am gone. I have high hopes this year.

Why teach them yoga rather than work to get them out of the horrible conditions they're living in altogether?
I am hoping that we can do both, help them to get out of the horrible conditions they are living in and also help them to learn and practice yoga, which helps to heal not only the body, but also the mind and the spirit. Once a woman is out of the horrible conditions of sex trafficking, she will still have to heal her Mind-Body-Spirit from the trauma, yoga heals all levels of the person. 


  1. Very warm narrative - continue the good work and keep healing n loving others

  2. I don;t know how I landed on your blog,, but have been reading all your stories back to back,, You are pretty engaging writer..