INDIA: New Light
New Light is a nonprofit charitable trust that protects and educates young girls, children and women who are at high risk in their community by providing safe shelters, educational opportunities, recreational facilities, healthcare, and legal aid. You must be female to volunteer with New Light. As a volunteer, you have the potential to provide a variety of much needed services such as teaching, nursing, the arts, and construction of a hospital.
New Light is a non-profit community development project and charitable trust based in Kalighat, Kolkata, one of the oldest red light districts of the city.New Light is located at Kalighat (Ward 83) in Kolkata, a five-minute walk from Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s home for the dying destitute. This is one of the oldest red light areas of Kolkata, housing sex workers from the city, districts, and neighboring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Currently, New Light operates three facilities in Kolkata: the Creche and Safe Shelter; the Dalit Shelter; and the Soma Memorial Girls Home.
New Light has evolved into a comprehensive community development project with a special focus on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment. The demographic composition of New Light is: 70% of the women are from Kolkata and its districts, 20% are from Hindi-speaking areas of the country, and 10% are from Nepal and Bangladesh. Women from all religious communities are invited to take part in this program.
Since 2000, New Light has provided shelter, educational opportunities, recreational facilities, healthcare and legal aid for the children, girls and women in the Kalighat community. There is a crèche and night-shelter for the protection and education of victims of trafficking, women in prostitution and children rescued from red light areas. New Light also provides micro-credit facilities and an income-generation program (Anchal) for mothers within the area. With regard to healthcare, New Light is particularly concerned with HIV/ AIDS prevention, care and treatment. New Light is a secular organization, and women from all religious communities are invited to join the organization. The demographic composition reflects India’s diversity, with Hindi-speaking and non-Indian women from Nepal and Bangladesh representing 30% of the community.
The Creche and Safe Shelter
What began as a Crèche for eight children, in two rooms in a dark alley of Kalighat eight years ago, has evolved into a program that now runs 24 hours, seven days a week for more than 150 kids. The Crèche Shelter is located in a permanent structure above a temple, situated deep inside the Kalighat red light district. It offers comprehensive care and support to children ranging in age from a few months to 16 years old. This was the first crèche operating in a red light area that started with children as young as three months old.
The strength of the New Light Crèche is that it provides sex worker mothers with an opportunity to keep their children in safe and loving custody of the caretakers. Most children from the neighboring areas use the shelter as a drop-in center, where they can rest, play, read, or learn computer skills. During the day, the shelter is abuzz with the continuous stream of children who attend the local schools and come to relax at the shelter after a hard day outside.
For many of the kids whose mothers don’t have a permanent residence, the shelter is the only place they can call their own.
The programs offered at the shelter include:
- Recreational facility
- Art and creative therapy
- Computer training
- Dance and music therapy
- Creative writing
The Dalit Shelter
In July 2003, New Light set up a multi-functional shelter for the children of the Dalit community, located behind the crematorium in Keoratala, Kolkata. The Dalits (meaning the oppressed in Hindi) are comprised mainly of Doms, a caste that has traditionally been marked as “untouchables” because they burn the dead bodies in the crematorium.
After five years in operation, the shelter now offers all the services that were originally offered at the Kalighat Shelter. Even though the constitution of India guarantees the Dalit people exactly the same rights as every other Indian citizen, their condition continues to be morbid. New Light aspires to changing the lives of the young ones in this small population through education and healthcare support.
Soma Memorial Girls Home
Three years ago, New Light started its first residential facility for young girls at risk. This was necessary to protect young adolescent girls in Kalighat, and other red light districts, from being abused and trafficked.
This three-story, licensed facility located in Kolkata is home to 32 girls who have been removed from the red light district of Kalighat for their protection with the consent and cooperation of their mothers. The home was named after an infant girl who died due to lack of proper medical attention by her family. It is hoped that because of this shelter, the lives of girl children will be protected and valued.
The girls of Soma Memorial Girls Home regularly attend school; learn Indian classical and modern dance, computer skills, boxing, tailoring, crafts, and cooking.
More about New Light…
Education has been a major focus area for New Light from its inception. From the moment funding was available; all the school age children were admitted to different local schools at different levels. Remedial support at pre-school, primary, secondary and higher secondary is provided to all the children. English and other foreign language training is available for children above the age of ten; kids are coached in blog writing; and eight experienced teachers help with their school work, with special emphasis on mathematics and the sciences.
Names of the schools where the children attend:
- Hashi-Khushi Kindergarten
- Kalighat Mahakali Pathshala
- Sahanagar Girls High School
- Children`s Hut
- St. Sebastian School & Dew Drops Montessori Center
- Kalighat Boys High School
- South Suburban School
- Chetla Boys High School
- Khala Ghar Boy’s Home
- Children`s Academy
- Gandhi Colony Bharati Balika Bidyalaya
- Shishu Bharati
- Shantirani Primary School
- Rishi Aurobindo Bidyapith
New Light has been providing comprehensive healthcare to the entire sex worker community for the past few years. Healthcare support is also extended to the community outside the red light district. The New Light Clinic operates five days a week with visits by a general practitioner, a pediatrician, and a gynecologist. Six health workers/peer educators and a full- time trained nurse are available to provide emergency medical care to the mothers and the children around the clock. All medical treatment expenses for the children registered with the program are sponsored by New Light.
The areas covered by the healthcare services include:
- Neonatal and postnatal care
- Immunizations (primary vaccine, MMR, Hepatitis B vaccine)
- Treatment of burn injuries
- Critical surgery for young children done in specialized care centers in the city
- HIV/AIDS care and support
- Dental, ophthalmic and cardiac care for children
- ENT Care
- Minor injuries and ailments
Eight years ago most of the young children of the community had never held a new or unbroken toy in their hands. The first service that was offered to the children and the mothers of the community was the possibility to enjoy play and creative activities that the mainstream children enjoy on a regular basis. Today the shelter operates as a playhouse where all the kids can take part in any recreational or creative activity they wish to.
Every Friday evening and Sunday morning the children are busy in their therapeutic art and clay modeling session under the guidance of an established artist from Kolkata. The shelter offers opportunities in art, music, therapeutic dance, creative writing, and sports. Many of the older children are members of a city rowing club, an activity that they immensely enjoy.
An annual excursion to the mountains or the ocean is a recurring feature of the New Light calendar, as well as the annual Carnival and Sports Day.
New Light conducts a free legal aid clinic for women of the community twice a week. A lawyer provides workshops and discussion sessions to educate women of their legal rights as citizens and understanding the legal and law enforcement systems. Support is also provided to establish their property and tenancy rights. Mothers are also assisted in processing the birth certificates and ration cards for themselves and the children.
Any group that works with the vulnerable and marginalized population of sex workers eventually has to get involved in arresting trafficking of young girls and women. Traditionally young girls and women have fetched a higher price in sex trade, which has resulted in the trafficking of this population from the rural and semi urban areas surrounding the big cities of India. Because of its geographical location and the shared porous borders with Nepal and Bangladesh, Kolkata has emerged has a source as well as a destination for trafficking. Most of the women engaged in sex work in Kolkata have arrived in its various red light areas via the violent routes of abduction, enticement and exploitation.
In order to start its fight against trafficking, New Light set up the New Light Soma Memorial Girls Home. This ensured the security of young adolescent girls growing up in Kalighat and resulted in the reduction of a large number of young entrants in to the sex trade.
Over the years New Light has established partnerships with other organizations working in the same field, including The Daywalka Foundation and Maiti Nepal.
The horrific stories of abuse and exploitation of the young rescued girls encourage every member of New Light to continue in their fight against trafficking (images not displayed for security reasons).
Micro Enterprise Development
New Light helps to uplift the standard of living of the sex workers of Kalighat. The nature of work for women in the Kalighat red light district is casual and irregular; the volume changes according to the seasons and festivals. The condition of the aged sex workers is even worse. They face disease, destitution, and daily suffering. In the last nine years, many older sex workers have been forced to move out of their rooms and live under plastic sheets.
To help the women have an alternative income source, New Light started its micro enterprise development program. To date, more than 35 women have benefitted from this program. A small interest free fund is given to the women to either start their own enterprise or join other existing businesses. The most popular activities include flower and food vending, sale of ready-made garments, trading fruits and vegetables, and selling sweet meat at the Kalighat Temple.
A training program has been started for the women of the Dalit (untouchable) community and the women engaged in sex work. Approximately three times per week these women get together and learn how to make quilts and blankets from old saris. Each blanket comprises of five or six layers of gorgeous old saris of different colors and patterns, resulting in a beautiful handmade and unique product. Part of the money earned from the sale of blankets goes back into the training programs and to purchase additional materials while the rest goes directly to the women as their income.
The women, for the first time in their lives, have an entirely independent and sustainable livelihood that is based on skills and dignified earning away from sex work and its associated stigma. This program has been designed and guided by a group of RISD students of textile design and sustainable development.
- Provides complete nutritional support to children and adults
- Offers holistic care and support
- Fights stigma and social discrimination attached with HIV /AIDS in the community
- Empowers affected families to take control of their lives
- Offers employment opportunities for total reintegration
- Documents various issues related to HIV/AIDS treatment, counseling and support
- Networks with other CBOs /NGOs working in the same field
- Assists in getting access to anti-tubercular drugs and ART from government centers
- Offers legal aid to establish their civil and human rights
- Creates awareness and fights HIV / AIDS in the immediate community through information, education and communication
- Offers marriage counseling
VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES AT NEW LIGHT
New Light welcomes female volunteers in the following areas:
- Teach children at pre-school, primary, secondary and higher secondary levels.
- Teach English, math, science, and foreign languages
- Teach kids in blog writing
- Coach kids in sports
- Provide general nursing care to patients
- Skills training to other nurses
- Counseling services
- Public awareness programs on HIV/AIDS
- Awareness campaign for general health and hygiene condition
- Provide skills training and share knowledge regarding general business practices
- Help women learn about production and distribution of their products
- Share your knowledge and experience in arts, crafts, floral design, music and dance
- Teach cooking skills
About Your Experience…
Being at Kalighat has never been a problem. The red light district is noisy and crowded and full of smells (not all pleasant), but you will never feel threatened. The kids are absolutely wonderful and its a joy to interact with them. New Light has many separate factions, so if working with the young children is not exactly where you feel comfortable, you will also have the chance to work with the middle-school aged girls at Soma Home, the children at the Dalit center, the boys at Khala Ghar, or the young women at Sonar Tori. Though New Light is shaping the volunteer experience to be a rather structured one, after demonstrated understanding of the mission and culture at New Light volunteers are encouraged to develop workshops in the arts, sports, or any area in which they have a particular interest.
BEING A VOLUNTEER AT NEW LIGHT
As a volunteer at Village Volunteers, you will be met at the airport, you will receive assistance in settling into your housing and you will be shown to the different shelters and introduced to the programs and staff. You will be given the phone numbers of multiple staff members and will find them to be incredibly friendly and accessible. However, due to the demanding nature of the work, the staff will not always be available to walk you into work (after you’ve learned the way) or take you on excursions after-hours. Though New Light cares for its volunteers, the primary focus of the staff is to provide quality care for the beneficiaries – women and children affected by human trafficking (trafficking, domestic abuse, poverty, HIV +, etc.). As a volunteer, the impact of the work of one person’s actions dramatically impacts the lives of others. Yet you will learn just as much from my experience as I am contributing.
ACCOMMODATIONS AT NEW LIGHT
There are two bedrooms in the volunteer apartment that can house two people each, so depending upon the length of your stay and the time of year, you may or may not have a roommate. There are two bathrooms, each with a standard toilet (which can be a rarity in India). We have a kitchen area with a new refrigerator and wash machine (laundry), cutlery, plates, tea-maker, and fresh drinking water. Though the apartment is technically the bottom floor of a family residence, we have a separate entrance and it feels private. The landlady is lovely. She and her husband are both retired, he an ex army general and she is a professor of literature. We will occasionally take tea with them, but generally they keep to themselves.
Your neighborhood and safety…
The neighborhood is full of old Bengali houses – beautiful architecture that retains its elegance despite some decay from the humidity and monsoons. It is a 5 minute walk to the market, shopping center, and numerous restaurants. New Light main shelter is about a 20 minute walk, across one large boulevard. Traffic can be a bit chaotic, but use caution and you should be okay, the most consistent danger for tourists anywhere comes from transportation-related accidents. As far as the safety of the city itself, volunteers have not had any problems. Still, we always advise that one use caution and remain aware of their surroundings, but volunteers have found Kolkata to be warm, both in climate and in character. People stare wherever you go, but its merely curiosity and not ill-intended. However sometimes it can wear on you, so your apartment gives you privacy and relative quiet.
Meals are prepared by the Soma Home cook. Volunteers who have special dietary needs or food allergies should note their needs on their volunteer application so Village Volunteers can notify the New Light staff in advance.
Bottled water is provided for volunteers.
There is electricity in the Soma Home.
Volunteers can access the internet in Kolkata.
Volunteers have the option of laundering their own clothing or paying a fee to have it done for them. All volunteers are asked to launder their own undergarments.
MEET NEW LIGHT’S PROGRAM DIRECTOR: URMI BASU
Born and raised in a family of professionals in Kolkata, India, Urmi Basu received her primary and secondary education in the same city. Her father was a doctor and her mother a healthcare administrator. Both her parents were deeply involved in activities of urban and rural development which influenced and prompted Urmi to choose the career of a social worker. On completion of her first degree in Sociology from The University of Kalyani, West Bengal , Urmi moved to take her Masters degree in Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences , Mumbai. During her training she had the opportunity to work in the first cell set up for women in distress by the Mumbai Police Department. She also worked as a relief worker during the Bhopal gas leak tragedy in December 1984 which left a lasting impression on her mind about the need to be prepared for disasters, both natural and man- made.
In the early part of her professional life Urmi worked with both small and well known organizations involved in the developmental sector. During her career she had the opportunity to work with issues related with urban and rural economic development, empowerment and protection of vulnerable groups like women engaged in sex work and subjected to extreme violence, street children, trafficked child labourers and young people in exploited situation. She has been a part of targeted intervention programs for victims of HIV / AIDS, transexuals and trans-gender people.
After fifteen years of professional work Urmi set up a small non –profit named New Light in Kolkata in 2000 with a seed money as little as Rs 10,000/- along with two other young people from the Kalighat red light district. The mission of the organization is to promote gender equality and fight violence and abuse of women, girl children and young people. That small initiative today provides care and support to more than a thousand people. The organization also works to fight against child prostitution and trafficking for the purpose of sex- trade.
For the last many years Urmi has been a trainer and resource person for innumerable government and non profit organizations. She regularly presents papers at various national and international seminars and conferences on HIV/ AIDS, trafficking, child rights and social justice.
She was selected as the NGO co-ordinator by the office of the Governor of West Bengal to make a presentation on micro credit, women’s participation in gender sensitivity and health issues during the visit of the former President of the United States Bill Clinton on 7th of April, 2001. More recently she was a part of the core team that met the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her visit to Kolkata and shared the experience of working against trafficking in persons.
In November 2011 Urmi received the Make a change Award from Children`s Hope India, New York.
In October 2012, a documentary named Half The Sky based on the novel by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn was shown on PBS featuring Urmi and her work with the victims of trafficking. Following the documentary Urmi received the Global Citizen Award at the Global Music Festival in Central Park, New York which was organized to mark zero tolerance for hunger, poverty and abuse.
Urmi was chosen as a recipient of a blessing from His Holiness The Dalai Lama under the title Unsung heroes of Compassion 2009 on the 26th of April 2009 in San Francisco for her work that promotes compassion and peace.
Reflections on Urmi’s childhood and family
from “My Mother” as published at Amistad International
My earliest memory of my mother`s courage floats back to the days of communal violence in the early sixties when she and our father long with some friends risked their lives and possessions to protect and save people whose lives and livelihood were being snatched from them. Those were moments of great turmoil and fear but what I learnt from her was to look at fear in its face. Those years were followed by the dark period of Bengal`s political situation and our family was subjected to untold loss and suffering by unknown assailants. Any other woman in my mother`s place would have left the ground and run for cover. Not our mother. She stood her ground, fought and saw to it that innocent lives were saved. It would take me another lifetime to recount all that happened in a short span of five years that followed.
Life dealt her that hardest blow when our father was diagnosed with cancer in 1973 and his life was abruptly brought to an end in 1976. Overnight her world was altered in ways beyond imagination. She accepted the transition of her role of a home maker to that of a bread earner with the grace befitting a ballet dancer. It was also at this time that she had to accept being separated from her two sons. My elder brother Basab went abroad for his studies and my younger brother Arnab went to live and study at the house of her dear sister Kabita and brother-in-law Sukumar Basu who had promised to take care of little Arnab. Not for a moment was there any remorse or laying the blame on fate. She did not believe in fate but just in her ability to change and control it. I continued to be with her and soon became the focus of her life. In a few years we were no longer parent and child but friends with a deep bonding and unconditional love. Much of my life today was shaped watching my mother go through the motions of everyday living. A life lived with courage and grace. Her love was not contained only for her biological children. She opened her heart to her other sons, Pulaha, my chhorda and Monojda, her foundling son. The influence of her life on them is to be equally remembered and noted.
Of all the gifts that our mother, Sabita has left us the greatest is the gift of courage. We hope we have the courage to look at life squarely at its face and say that we are ready. We hope we are ready to shoulder our responsibility and take it one step further. We hope are ready to carry on in the legacy of justice and compassion.