”Hell for women – heaven for men”

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”The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

13th of December, it’s dark outside. Everything started with the worst night in my life so far. I’m in Kolkata, India and we’re just about to enter the biggest red light district in Asia called Sonagachi. Rati is the woman who will be the one to change my life forever. Or Mother Teresa of the brothels as I would like to refer her to.

You’re not allowed to take photos in Sonagachi. Thats why we choose to illustrate with other pictures. All names in this text are made up.

Me and my friend are meeting Rati at Freeset which is a company started by a couple from New Zealand many years ago. They hire women who are ready and have the chance to leave their life of prostitution behind them. She works here along with almost 200 woman and girls who are all victims of trafficking or forced prostitution.

womens side on metro
On some subways and buses in Kolkata women have their own seats and wagon where they can go to if they want. Photo: Erika Kantonen

We start walking along the streets in Sonagachi. It’s trash everywhere. Old food, plastic and dirt everywhere. There’s stool all over the place from both the homeless dogs and people. Hygiene is not first priority here in Sonagachi and that’s pretty logical when the access to hygiene stuff are more or less zero. Most people are using the wells on the sidewalks. Here they get the water they drink, do their dishes and wash themselves and their clothes. Big, fat rats are running all around our feet. The odor that surround us in here is by far the worst thing of it all. Together with all the exhaust and the bad pollution here, it makes it hard to even breath from time to time. It’s like a big blanket over Kolkata that converts the whole city into a hazy gas chamber.

Rati is a short woman with grey hair that she colors black. You can tell from her roots. Her eyes are like two big, beautiful and dark deer eyes. Unfortunately they look more or less dead today compared to what they once looked like. She take us with her to her little home in the middle of the brothel. A tiny room up on the roof. Outside her door she rolls out a thin blanket for all of us to sit on and drink Chai tea together.

She showing us pictures and telling us her story. She only speak bengali and no english so my friend is updating me and help me with the translation. Rati is a victim herself of the trafficking business since’s a very young age. After being brutally raped, beaten and mentally draged to the bottom for a long time, this much older man comes to her rescue. She marry this man in her young teenage years but they are not intimate until she is at a legal age and seriously falls in love with this man that saved her life. Together they worked to help girls everyday and even she gained a lot of respect in Sonagachi. He was a respected man in the area and had in many different ways saved many girls from the cruel life of forced prostitution. This will also start to become Ratis mission in life.

The reason why her eyes no longer look alive in the same way they use to are because of her husbands death several years ago. He was her everything here on earth and everyday she ask herself why she’s still here. We know that it’s because of all the girls here in the brothel. She is like a mother and sister to them.

During our time up on that roof, two young girls comes up to sit with us. They look like they are around 15 years old tops. They look like they are bubbling with a million questions to ask us. I start asking them about their age and one of them quickly answer 18. The other girl didn’t really know and it’s actually very common here since they are usually kidnapped and more or less brainwashed. Also why they answer with a legal age are often just to satisfy the pimps or madames as they are called sometimes.

The girls look at me for a couple of minutes, hold my hands and touch my tattoos. Time after time they tell me how beautiful they think I am. I respond every time that I think they are very beautiful as well. The answer they give me back at this point was just heart breaking.
”No, we are bad girls”.

The feeling I get at this moment is so indescribable. To be sitting there eye to eye and holding hands with these two amazing girls. Girls just like me and maybe you and hear this was just to much to handle. I did my best there and then not to be weak and pity them. I decided instead to be strong and tell them the real truth about how I see them as pretty, strong and good girls who should in any possible way try their best to follow their dreams. I felt devastated after this as if everything up to this point was nothing. They should live life just like us. Have the same interest, play together, be appreciated for who they are and most of all have the right to be kids.

In a blink of an eye, the time had come for us to go down into the streets of the brothel to get an insight of how the sex trade is working here. I also realize at this moment I had to let go of these young girls hands. It feels like no one of us wanted to let go. My heart and all that I am is telling me to take these girls with me to safety and sisterhood, but no, instead they are going to go down to get in line with all the other girls. Waiting for their turn to be raped once again. Same thing everyday over and over.

There is no dignity in this life that other people have chosen for them or taken from them. The fact that our world still can look like this today. That a few percent of people have more money then the rest of all the people in the world together. It’s all incomprehensible to me. After being in that place, I know for sure, there is at least one hell on this earth. A hell for women; a heaven for men.

On the streets we stop to talk to the girls. Everybody looks so gorgeous in their colorful saris, which are six meter long fabric you rap around yourself in different ways. All of them wear beautiful make up and jewelry, but their eyes are blank. It’s like all they consist of is pretty shells. Still they all seems to be very curious about me. We talk mostly about basic stuff. This is not a place to get down to business and tell a detailed story. All the time we are haunted by all these obsessed men looking over our shoulders like we were a piece of meat.

At this point my sadness has turned into anger and I feel very furious about the whole situation.

Ganges Kolkata
Sunday in Kolkata means a swim in river Ganges. Photo: Erika Kantonen

Without the off record numbers, there are about 12 000 girls in Sonagachi who are victims for this horrible sex trade. Most of them are kidnapped or sold by their families at the age of 8–12 years old. Meanwhile there are approximately 40 000–60 000 men who comes here everyday to buy sex.

See how sick that is? This shouldn’t be going on. Also the pimps give these young girls a drug or a medicine, depending in which purpose you use it, called Oradexon. This increase the girls appetite and help them to get bigger and get more curves. That’s how the Indian men likes their girls usually. Side effects of abusing this drug are things like; high blood pressure, skin rashes and liver damage as well. In a recent report it became clear that the men prefer their girls at age 12 here. That would be a girl in 6th grade. When I was 12 I just got my period and still didn’t have a thought about sex. I was doing sports and was hanging out with my mates everyday.

We also meet a guy called Kavi. He told us his story about how he lived with his parents and had a good childhood. His father worked for the government, which is probably the best kind of job you can have in India when it comes to salary and other benefits. When Kavi got older his father found a new interest for alcohol and ladies outsides his marriage. Years later, after leaving his wife and son, he comes back and wants to start over. His mother approved, most probably to make sure Kavi can grow up, finish school and get a proper education. Kavi on the other hand will never forgive his father.

He’s showing us pictures of him back in the days when he enjoyed life and did not live in the brothel. He was very physically fit and had a big smile on his face. That smile is long gone by now. When we’re talking to him now, it’s a skinny boy sitting infront of us with his face buried in his hands and close to a break down after telling us about his life. You could see the tears rolling down his face.

He wipes them off and told us about his biggest dream.
”I want to go to South America and take photos in the jungle. I hope I’ll be more lucky in my next life and will be able to do that”.

Rati gets a phone call and tell us we need to go and visit a girl on another street. When we arrive to her home, it turns out to be a little room dressed in concrete walls. The whole space is covered with a big mattress. She has some photos on her walls and a portable stove to make chai tea. She lives here with her new husband.
”He’s a good man”, she says.

Apparently he works everyday even with a broken hand. He can’t afford to get it fixed and he doesn’t want her to sell herself like her ex-husband did.
 ”He sold me 3 times”, she says.

She’s crying and holding on to Rati’s hand while telling us about her past and present and it’s very emotional. Everybody here is offering you a snack. Even if they can’t afford it. Both of us are already full, but you feel ungrateful if you say no and you can’t get rid of the thought in the back of your head when it comes down to the hygiene outside. Your appetite isn’t really on top whether you want it to or not.

When we’re walking out of their home I throw a glimpse right over the wall on the other side and on the ground, there are two babies sleeping alone next to each other in a small hole in the wall which looks almost like some sort of a little kitchen. Once again, one of these pictures in your head, from when you’re watching a donation campaign back home at your telly, comes up.

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And after seeing all of this and after getting some sort of understanding of that society, you truly realize how hard everything must be when you’re living in a corrupt country like India. I am truly grateful for everything I have and I feel very relieved that I finally sat down and wrote this report for me, and for you guys to read and relate to. I said it before but I really want to make a point by saying this again because it can’t hurt.

To go somewhere and do volunteer work is something we should see as a strength. Sometimes it feels like everything we are surrounded by is trying to teach us that we are the lucky chosen ones. The ones that won on the lottery of life. We should enjoy this privilege and just put in some money in an account when they tell us to… No. This is actually a part, where we as independent individuals who were brought up in countries with civil rights, can make a choice to stand up against all these class distinctions all over the world. Stand up for our rights and everyone’s rights as human beings.

A good quote from an old african tribe, aka. Ubuntu which originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa and is a traditional African philosophy that offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world which includes the opinion that we are less of individuals and more parts of a complex network:

”A person is a person through other persons” – Desmond Tutu.

So be curious, reach out, look for answers to your questions or maybe questions to your answers. Be hungry and don’t leave anything to a random faith when you can actually do conscious choice. Be aware and make decisions that will help not only yourself, as in mankind, but also all this people and their destinies that are in desperate need right now in this very second. I am very familiar with the thought ”I’ll do that later” or ”I’ll do that the next time”. Well, to be honest with you guys, between us grown ups, we all know it doesn’t work that way. We should totally agreed upon that by now. You can never rely on tomorrow or next time. Life is here and now so stop waisting it on stuff that makes you defensive, negative or keep holding you back.

All names in this text are made up to protect their identity and since you’re not allowed to take photos in Sonagachi I’m gonna show you guys other ones that also brings out the joy I felt doing other things like going to weddings here in this very living, colorful and massive country called India.

Pilgrim Kali tempel Kolkata
A pilgrim at the temple Dakshineswar. Photo: Erika Kantonen
Indian wedding Kolkata
Erika went to a wedding in Kolkata. It’s tradition to make henna tatoos before the wedding. Photo: Erika Kantonen
A baby getting shaved at temple near Ganges. Photo: Erika Kantonen

I want to round this up with a couple of good projects you can turn to if you feel like you want to do something for these girls and women in the brothels of India.

A company I worked for in the brothel are Sari Bari. This is their homepage and you are free to check it out and maybe buy something to help them make a difference or create an opportunity.

http://saribari.com

Another good business is Freeset. You can buy things here as well and while you do it you create a possibility for them to hire more women. Same thing with Sari Bari.

http://freesetglobal.com

You can also make a donation or be a sponsor at LoveNepal which is an organisation that actually goes into the brothels and get girls out of there and also bring them back home to Nepal where they can live at a good orphanage instead of the horrible brothels. You can also read a recent article from a Swedish newspaper here called Aftonbladet about Jonatan and his family who started this wonderful initiative LoveNepal together.

http://lovenepal.se



http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article22065948.ab

Once again I want to thank you guys for the word. Without you I wouldn’t find the right words for all this and remember to always try to stay positive even after reading about this misery going on in India.

I did find it hard to be positive right after my travel but I still think about the smiles I saw, the strong women, kids and families and the actual fact that there are many of us who are out there and do what we can even if it’s a full time job or maybe just a one or two week thing. Everything matters.

I’m ending this text by sharing a song and a documentary that is actually one of the biggest reasons I went over to India to do this. The documentary is called Blood brother and I deeply fell in love with it from the bottom of my heart. I recommend you to watch it too.

First time I heard this song was in the documentary. The song by Bon Iver: I can’t make you love me.

erika

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