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.