Jyoti Kalash: A Glimmer Of Light In A Dark Place
Mumbai is the largest city in India and the epicenter of one of the most populous urban regions in the world. It is a documented “high supply zone’ for women trafficked from Bangladesh and Nepal, a wealthy but corrupt city that gives human trafficking syndicates a lucrative and steady flow of income and red light districts where the industry can thrive. Here children as young as 9 are bought for up to 60,000 rupees, or US$2,000, at auctions where Arabs bid against Indian men who believe sleeping with a virgin cures gonorrhea and syphilis.
According to an article published in India’s prominent Outlook magazine,
Some girls go through ‘training’ before being initiated into prostitution, which can include constant exposure to pornographic films, tutorials in how to ‘please’ customers, repeated rapes. (Soma Wadhwa, For Sale Childhood, Outlook, 1998)
About the time this article was published, a university graduate from Philadelphia by the name of Vera Fernandes, who had originally grown up in Mumbai, started making return visits to investigate the plight of such girls. By 2001 she rented a room near the red light district in the center of the city, not far from where she grew up, and dedicated her life to serve the abandoned women and children of the brothels.
Growing up, Vera she didn’t realize that her home was only a mile away from the largest red light district in the fourth largest city in the world. She grew up in a fairly sheltered home and attended Catholic school where there was never so much as a mention of the red-light area nearby. Then, at age twenty, she emigrated with her family to the United States. “When I left India,” she recalls, “I said to myself I would never return to this country!”
Once in the US, Vera enrolled in a university in Philadelphia and completed a Master’s degree in Microbiology. But she felt there must be more—a “greater purpose”— for her life that involved serving others and making a difference in the world. For a couple of years after graduating she began to sort through various service options and eventually connected with a group of young social entrepreneurs in Germany. They told her of a vision they had to launch a community service center in the red light district of…Mumbai!
For the first time in her life she heard the stories of children having to live under their mothers’ beds in brothel rooms. (Most Indian women want to have children so even these former trafficked victims have one or two children, most of whom were born in the brothel and continue to live with them in the same room.) After living the first 20 years of her life only blocks away and never having as much as heard of the plight of these brothel children, Vera saw the light. She had not been to Mumbai for 16 years, but now she knew she had to return. Here she was, in her mid thirties, finally aware of the desperate need of these at risk children and in a position to do something about it. She had found the greater purpose she was looking for.
As a result of Vera’s efforts and the combined efforts of others, the NGO Jyoti Kalash was launched and today it operates relief centers in several locations in Western India. Why the name? “Jyoti” means light and “Kalash” is a Hindu pot that is a symbol of abundance and wholeness. The concept expressed by the name “Jyoti Kalash” is one of coming out of the shadows and into the light and experiencing wholeness.
Jyoti Kalash has three goals:
1) Caring for children of commercial sex workers that are “at risk” children, and placing them in safer homes.
2) Operating Toy Libraries (Play Rooms) where these children can learn through play, and also receive healing through Art and Play Therapy
3) Serving as a barrier against the sex industry in India, and providing a voice for the voiceless women and children on the streets.
According to Vera, getting the human trafficking victims off the streets and transitioned to healthier jobs has its challenges.
“Most of these women ( the women we reach out to) were once trafficked into the area when they were under 18. They are now in their 30’s and 40’s , and free to leave this area. Bringing them out is no-easy task.”
For now, the main focus is to reach out to the brothel children (children of these trafficked victims that continue to live in brothel rooms) through the Toy Library, which provides an environment of fun and learning (they play with puzzles and educational toys), an opportunity for counseling and healing from trauma, and a stepping stone to placement in a home—a safe place where they can can develop and grow.
We asked Vera for a couple of stories. Flashing a radiant smile she was glad to tell us a little bit about two very special young people they’ve been able to help.
“Gita,” ( name changed) “is around six years of age, and is the grand-daughter of a sex worker. With both mother and grand-mother unable to provide the care she needed, she spent much of her time on the street. She is an energetic and intelligent girl and seemed joyful despite her circumstances. We heard of her plight and despite the scarcities of orphanages for girls like her, we were thankful to be able to place her in a Home. She is now happy to be attending a good English medium school and is in a safe and secure place.”
A reflective pause, and then another story.
“Sameer,” (name changed) “is around 14 years of age, and the son of a sex worker. His mother was trafficked at the age of fifteen from Bangladesh. After some years, his mother chose to continue as a sex worker for lack of any other employment opportunities. Sameer spent most of his life in the red-light area with his mother. She later became very ill with multi-drug resistant TB. Sadly she passed away earlier this year, but before her death, we were able to place Sameer in a home for street boys. He also has a little brother aged three who has been placed in an orphanage for little children. Having spent a considerable amount of time at our Centre, Sameer speaks well in English and has a desire to have a good education and a future. Despite the challenges he has faced in his own life, he is determined to be able to one day take care of his little brother.”
There have been encouraging signs of progress. Most of these children had never attended school when they first came through the door, but now they can all read and write and speak English fluently. Like wilting flowers in need of water and sunshine, they are responding to the opportunity to escape the perils of following in their mother’s footsteps.