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He took his camera to a village where prostitution is a way of life. Here's what he found.

What happens when a place is left to become an unchecked prostitution economy? One writer, Souvid Datta, spent nine days there to scratch the surface of that question. After seeing what you're about to see, you may be moved to share. The more people talking about these injustices, the better.

By Souvid Datta | Kolkata, India, 2014


Sonagachi is an area located in North Kolkata, India.

Narrow alleys, enclosed by towering, decayed brothels and bright market stalls form together in a confusing, colourful maze.

This is the home of Asia's second largest red-light district.

The neighbourhood exists as a sprawling, illegal network of organised gangs, traffickers and victims: a place where reporters and outsiders are threatened away by violence, politicians and police are bribed or complicit, and an estimated 12,000 prostituted women, often under the age of 18, are effectively raped everyday for £1.

Lalka*, 25, in her room with a client in Sonagachi. Having been trafficked at the age of 16, Lalka suffered years of violent customers and then an abusive marriage with a local gang enforcer who works in her brothel. They are still together now, though she is desperately looking for a safe way out of the relationship. (*name changed)

Over the past 30 years the district has grown in the shadows, being left to fester. State and private initiatives have failed to tackle groups of petty criminals who now control territorial authority and resources. And a growing cultural stigmatization of those involved has bred disinterest and fostered exploitation. Today, younger and younger victims of trafficking come from further afar.

Sonagachi itself thrives off a self-perpetuating, city-wide mentality of hypocrisy, crime and ignorance. It is a word not used in public; a pit that many profit from, yet one that most, including the local media, seem to turn a blind eye to.

Abroad, it continues to be largely unknown.

The first step is challenging ignorance.

Broadcasting the reality of the situation on the ground can inspire constructive awareness and empathy.

Radhika, 17, and her friends look out from a caged window of a brothel in Sonagachi while getting ready for the evening rush. While many in the area have 'earned' the independence to work on personal basis, all newly trafficked women and youngsters are kept on firm lock and key, forced to stay within the prison-like, dire conditions of brothel walls.

This year I gained access to Sonagachi for 9 days.

I spent time with prostituted women as young as 14 who had been kidnapped on their way to school from border states. Their resilience, grace and collective enterprise astounded me; and at night, within dark, caged brothel cells, I heard their cries for hours.

Outside, police officials embraced gang-leaders and were offered their pick.

Radhika, 17, in the room of a veteran sex worker, Asma, in Sonagachi (seen dressing in background). The two have grown close over Radhika's period here; she respects and learns from Asma's experience and matter of fact, survival attitude, while Asma feels a fondness for Radhika's unfettered 'kindness and curiosity'. Strong bonds can often form within brothels as girls learn to support each other and find self-empowerment through group assertion and collective experience.

A serious, in-depth multimedia report will give voice to thousands of young women who have been systematically stripped of human choice and expression. It will inform topical debates in India today on sexual inequality, graft and development. And perhaps most importantly, it might provoke ordinary people to sit back callously no longer, but begin contributing to a process of improvement.

The Matter Fellowship will give me the resources and time I need to document the reality of Sonagachi both honestly and compellingly, from rights abuses and state failure to urgent human stories.

Radhika in her evening wear awaiting clients on the foot of her brothel in Sonagachi.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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