Wrapped in a sari bright with color, Urmi Basu brought her hands to her mouth as the crowd at the Ali Center’s Daughters of Greatness breakfast series stood in admiration. Emotion, raw and beautiful, briefly overcame the woman’s face, almost like she felt she didn’t deserve the recognition. The sense of her humility made the audience clap even louder.
Before this event, few of us seated at the table knew of Basu or her work with the poor and vulnerable in Kolkata, India. Not that the information wasn’t out there.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn in their book “Half the Sky” wrote intimately of those who are served by New Light, the charitable organization Basu founded 13 years ago. Louisville’s own Jeff Dupree produced a documentary by the same name that chronicled the plight of women around the globe. A segment featured the efforts of this small but powerful lady who appeared at the podium before us.
According to the PBS documentary’s website, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 2.4 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, of which approximately 1.2 million are children. With 161 countries being somehow affected, the growing crisis isn’t only a problem for third world countries. In fact, human trafficking has become the second fastest growing criminal enterprise in America today, culminating in more than 100,000 youth having involvement in the sex trade on our own shores every year.
Screened to the audience before Basu’s talk, this chapter of the “Half the Sky” focuses on the travesties that occur daily in the red light districts of Kolkata. Women, some sold into the sex trade as early as 9 years old, prostitute themselves to survive in this brutal world. At times, their children sleep nearby as they service their clients.
Like an old dusty heirloom, families engaged in this work pass down this existence to their daughters. Tradition and the caste system, still strong in India, encourage it. An escape from their destiny can be hard to find, compassion for their circumstances even harder.
“No child, no woman, no human being should be selling their bodies for survival. It’s a shame on our civil society if we allow it to do that,” Basu said in the documentary. “So every person in every corner of this world needs to raise a voice and say this has to stop.”
Taking her stand against oppression, Basu opened New Light along these very streets in 2000. The nonprofit organization gives much needed opportunities to Kolkata’s sex workers. In its rooms, women who may feel their only marketable ability is selling their bodies learn other skills, such as quilt making. The charity also provides health care and a free legal aid clinic to the ladies.
But the most heartbreaking yet hopeful aspect of the organization’s work involves the children. Young girls fetch a good price in India’s sex market, and ones born to women already in the trade face an even greater risk of becoming part of this world.
Looking to break the cycle of prostitution, New Light focuses on education. With the belief every mother wants what is best for her child, women essentially allow the nonprofit to play a pivotal role in their child rearing. Alongside providing schooling, shelters have been established where the children of these sex workers can stay and seek a different path. More than 200 kids are in some way under the charity’s care.
Not everyone in Basu’s life was happy with her decision to help. A few would say these weren’t her people, and perhaps there’s an ounce of truth to that statement. The sociologist by training was born to educated, middle class parents who valued her intellect and personhood. Becoming involved with what some deemed as society’s undesirables wasn’t a path she needed to take.
Still, something called from within her to help. Maybe, as she said in her speech, it was the knowledge that little really separated her from the women of street. Only luck veered her from a similar course.
“I told them my life and your life would not have been much different,” Basu said. “It was different in a way that I was born into a family that was able to give me the things that I received.”
Really, none of us are that far removed from the life of degradation that plagues these women of Kolkata, a humbling thought. Yet, in a similar respect, the same could be said of our relationship to Basu and the people who confront these and other injustices.
Although it’s easy to believe that today’s heroes are superhuman, in reality they are ordinary people like you and me. As Basu said, “We are not extraordinary beings. We just decided to do things slightly differently.”
Circumstances dictate plenty of what we can or can’t do. But our decisions truly influence the life we lead. Will we stand around and occasionally clap for the doers, or will we resolve to make a positive difference in this sometimes cruel and bitter world? The choice, as always, is ours.
For more information on Basu and her organization, including ways in which to volunteer or donate, visit New Light’s website at www.newlightindia.org.
— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at email@example.com