Saturday, April 21, 2007

Impressions of Kolkata

I'm sitting in a tiny booth with four computers and a small fan, just 20 feet away from Park Road in Kolkata, India. I'm so relieved to be off of the street, away from the incessant honking, smells, dust, putrefying piles of garbage, constant stares, and the frequent heart-wrenching begging. Kolkata is nothing if not intense. I've been here for 2 1/2 days and it's been a constant assault on all of my senses. Frequently, I find myself walking down the street, silently thinking to myself, "Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap..." It's not fear, it's that it doesn't stop. All the time, every where I look, there's something I've never seen before, and it's overwhelming. Neither good nor bad, just overwhelming.

Then there's also the squalor. The buildings are scared by black stains, many of them covered by layers of dirt, dust and grime that look like they've been building up for the last 1,000 years. The streets are lined with gutters, filled with brown, toxic-looking liquid (much of it probably pee) and choked with debris, garbage, and human feces. I've been wearing flip flops, but I'm very careful where I step. There's no where to sit except amidst the dust and the crowds of people. In comparison, New York is a pristine oasis of neatly organized calm. After wandering around the streets of Kolkata, I have a new found appreciating for the glass-covered, urban jungle, and I think I might just have to go kiss the ground in Central Park - in desparate gratitude for its existence - upon my return.

I arrived in Kolkata after a 14 hour flight from JFK to Mumbai (Bombay), a six hour layover (from 12:00 to 6:00 am Mumbai time) in Mumbai Airport, and a two hour flight to Kolkata. From Kolkata airport I took a taxi to the organization for whom I will be volunteering through the end of next week. The cabs here are kind of awesome. They're bright yellow cars in the style of 1920s Rolls Royce's and they're everywhere. There are also tuk-tuks, but I've stuck to the more reliable, quicker, cabs so far.

The people I'll be volunteering with are amazing. From the moment I met them, they greeted me with warmth, excitement, and genuine pleasure to have me here. The organization itself is focused upon stopping another generation of young girls from entering prostitution. To that end, they have reached out to adolescent girls living in the red light districts of Kolkata and in a few other areas in India, and have provided them alternative housing in shelters, education, health care, and skills training - all aimed to give them a viable alternative, other than prostitution, for supporting themselves. Because their mothers are prostitutes, and because they themselves have grown up in the red light districts, they are a high risk group in terms of the likelihood that they will be pressured into prostitution.

A word on the red light districts. Never have I seen such intense poverty. People are living on top of each other, crowded into decaying stone buildings or under lean-tos, with only ragged cloth as a roof covering or door. There's garbage everywhere, as there is in most of the places I've seen so far in Kolkata. Some houses seem to literally rise up out of the garbage, almost as if they are part of the garbage heap upon which they are situated. The girls who live in the red light districts are stigmatized and treated with disdain. Some go to school, but other girls who are not from the red light district are told not to speak with them because they are "bad girls." I'm talking not about the prostitutes, but their children.

I learned a little about some of the children's lives when I met 5 teenage girls yesterday at a shelter, ranging in age from 13-16. They were amazing! Smart, funny, open, and bubbling with questions for me. The girls reside in a shelter run by the organization I'm volunteering with. All of the girls said their mothers support them living outside of the red light district; they don't want their daughters forced into prostitution, they want them to have a different life. During our conversation (in Bengali and Hindi but translated into English for my benefit), the subject turned to violence against women. When I asked whether they had seen violence in their community they described in vivid detail the death of a woman who had been burned a live by her John just a few days earlier. The girls said "husband," because in the red light district that is how the Johns are referred to. It's less shameful then admitting that your mom is a prostitute.

Apparently, her John became angry with her and, after dousing her with alcohol, set her and her sari on fire. Just before dying, she lunged at her attacker, saying that if she died he would go on to do this to other women and that he should die to. She hugged her John and they both ended up being burned alive. The five girls had seen the whole altercation happen inside the cramped quarters where their mothers live. I can't imagine growing up in that reality. I was stunned and inspired by their resilience. They've grown up with abuse and unspeakable horror, such as seeing people burned alive before them, yet they could animatedly discuss their love of dancing, talking to new people, carpentry, and their hopes for their future. One girl wants to be a math teacher, another wants to be a doctor. It's overwhelming to me how many girls there are just like them who deserve so much better than the reality that they were born into.

Speaking of injustice and clashes between worlds, out of necessity, I walk past mothers with children, children alone, the elderly, and the crippled, staring fixedly ahead, ignoring their pleas for money or food. A fellow traveler that I met my first night here, Sarah from Scotland, told me how guilty she feels when she does the same thing and refuses the pleas for help. Having just arrived, I waxed philosophical, and said I didn't feel guilty because supporting begging runs the risk of supporting the trafficking of persons for begging, and suggested that a better route would be donating to a local organization. Ha! That was after only 3 hours in the city.

Two days and many, many poor souls later, of course I feel guilty. I'm sickened by the poverty, not by the people who are poor, and not by their way of life, but by the fact that they have so little. In comparison, I have so much. I come from a world so different, and so filled with privileges it's incomprehensible. Walking on the garbage covered side walk, navigating between skeletal bodies huddled against the sides of the path, many of them without even a piece of cloth to cover them, I feel sick to my stomach at the injustice. But, what can I do? Giving out rupees would accomplish two things: First, it would get me mobbed, and second, it would in fact support the trafficking of people for begging - a practice which results in, among other things, the forced maiming of children for sympathy points. As I don't want either, I'm holding on to my rupees, but, yes, I feel guilty, but mostly I just feel sad. I feel sad that I have so much where they have so little, and guilty for giving them nothing. It feels cruel to walk past them without even a glance. I try to be firm and gentle, and to treat each person I encounter with dignity and respect. But, it's not enough. People should not be living like this. It's horribly sad.


Starshine said...

I read another blogger who recently returned from India, and her thoughts were similar. She said India will make you feel until you bleed. I thought that was a vivid word picture. I'm glad you have the opportunity to volunteer with this humanitarian organization. That's awesome! Keep us posted, my friend, and stay safe.

Anonymous said...

I have so much respect for you for doing this! Stay safe!

Buttercup said...

Starshine, What blogger? I'd like to check her (or him) out.

Caledonia - I will!

Gregory A. Becerra said...

Congratulations on making it to India.

I'm curious about the motivation of the group you are voluteering with. What kind of alternatives to prostitution are they offering young women and how do their potential earnings compare? I ask because prostitution, like most other things, is effected by demand. So by offering one young girl alternative options, this will have a side effect of creating increased demand, and therefore bringing in another girl to replace the loss. So while one girl is removed another takes her place.

I wonder if these girls might be better served by working toward creating an environment that would be safe for prostitution. Amsterdam is a model example. There the prostitutes are unionized and highly protected. It is regulated to the point that it is not much different from any other job.

So if the motivation is really the betterment of these women rather than prostitution being morally objectionable to those helping, then focusing on the environment they work in seems more likely to create lasting change.

Starshine said...

Buttercup, the blogger is Beanzzz at "Stealthybean". Here's the link:

Buttercup said...


Consider having anal and oral sex 16 times a day with men who buy you for a period of time to use as they like. Even under the least abusive conditions, do you really believe that prositution can be a profession no different than any other? Do you really believe that human beings can be reduced to a commodity without creating some type of damage for the people who are bought? And do you really believe that women with other alternatives choose prostitution?

Setting aside the reality of prostitution, which is that most prostitutes are forced into selling themselves (or more likely having pimps or brothel owners sell them) because of poverty, I find a stark difference between the selling of a human being's body and say bread, electronics, or legal services.

I also find no weight whatsoever in your argument that rescuing one girl or woman from prostitution "increases the demand." Men as a group create the demand for prostitution. Helping one woman get out of prostitution limits the supply by one woman, however there are unfortunately millions of girls and young women who are continually being forced into prostitution so there is a steady supply.

And, rather than work to keep that supply steady, I think a more worthwhile endeavor would be to start enforcing the laws criminalizing the buying of women/sex against the men who are doing the buying. This would have a profound impact on lowering demand, which would result in less girls being trafficked into prostitution each day.

In addition, all studies that I'm familiar with have found that legalizing prostitution actually increases demand by creating a concentration of available prostitution which in turn causes an increase in trafficking into the area. Though some women "benefit" buy receiving health care and not having to worry about being arrested, the people who are really served are the traffickers and the buyers of prostitution b/c they have an identifiable location to go to to sell and buy girls and women.

Gregory A. Becerra said...


Yes I believe prostitution can be a profession like any other. It is not a profession that I would choose personally. In any business scenario, human beings are a commodity: they are called workers. Volunteers are a commodity just as paid workers are. We don't like to call ourselves this but avoiding the term does not make it less true. The idea of commodity has nothing to do with prostitution.

Yes many prostitutes are forced to sell themselves. In many countries, especially male dominated ones, women are literally forced by abduction. In this case the term slavery more appropriately describes the situation than commodity. The problem is that there is nothing to protect these women. Remember with U.S. slavery against blacks, the Underground Railroad, which helped many individuals, did not end slavery. It did bring a lot of attention to the problem, just as your choice to volunteer and help individuals will help bring attention to this problem in India and elsewhere (and already has by us talking about it). But slave owners just bought more slaves to replace the ones that escaped. To end slavery we created laws to protect blacks themselves.

My "weight" for an "increase of demand" is the economic rule of supply and demand and most if not all economists would agree. Those that disagree I would guess are using their personal morality overshadow economic theory. Take away a worker and that worker will be replaced. This is not a nice thought in this particular scenario, but again this does not make it untrue.

I totally agree with you about criminalizing the buying of women and men. But renting them is the basis of capitalism so I don't have a problem with that. We don’t have legalized slavery that forces people to work in fields, but there are still people that work in fields. The only difference is that we now rent people rather than own them and protect the workers’ rights as individuals. So the same standards should be ensured to protect men and women who choose prostitution as a method of income.

If you are going to mention studies, you will need to be specific as to which these are. I would guess that the studies you are referring to are describing legalizing prostitution in areas where there are no legal protections for the prostitutes themselves. This is similar to legalizing slavery, and as I pointed out, I am against.

But if you are talking about areas like Amsterdam, which I recommend you make a stop at on your way back home to see for yourself, then the effects are not as you describe. Amsterdam is not much different from U.S. major cities, except the prostitutes are in control, not people traffickers or pimps. I could be wrong, but I don't think pimps even exist in Amsterdam (or in Nevada). It's fine to point to a study, but it is even better to go and see the actual results, not speculative results, for oneself.

I have not even mentioned other side effects of outlawing prostitution in general. One is an increase in rape and related violent crimes. So it is possible that a young woman could be "rescued" from a life of prostitution only to be left at a job demanding more of her time for less money and putting her in a situation of people still raping her. India still has a long way to go in terms of human rights (but so does the U.S.). I think more people should be like you, Buttercup, and get involved.

Please know I support you getting involved in ANY fashion. But I don't think the long term solution will be helping just one person at a time. We need to help others, as you are, when we can, but understand the result may not be what we expect. And sometimes the real solution seems at conflict with the core of our morality.

I understand several feminists read this blog including Buttercup. So I would be interested in an answer to the following question from anyone willing to give it: Suppose prostitution is fully protected and prostitutes have full choice and rights, like in Amsterdam and almost in Nevada. And suppose prostitutes could choose to continue to stay in the profession or leave for another. As a woman, would you support a woman’s right to choose that profession? Why or why not? (Please also note that I am only using women as the example, but let us not forget about male prostitutes, so no disrespect to them.)

Buttercup said...


Thank you for your support about getting involved and learning more about these issues. They are very important and I completely support thorough discussion of these issues.

About your comment that "To end slavery we created laws to protect blacks themselves." Yes, we did, but we also outlawed slavery.

You also state that a side effect of outlawying prostitution is "an increase in rape and related violent crimes." I can access studies when I get back in the states that show that enforcing laws against the buying of prostitution actually decreases demand. Do you have access to studies that show that outlawing prostitution increases rape? I would be interested in seeing them.

Even if they were true though the problem is not the outlawing of prostitution, the problem is the sense of entitlement and power among men that leads them to believe it's acceptable to buy and rape women.

Gregory A. Becerra said...

While slavery was made illegal, blacks still suffered extreme injustice for decades afterward. A similar comparison can be made with prostitution in most of the U.S. where it is still illegal. Further laws were needed that focused on blacks' human rights and equality.

The comparison starts to break down at this point because we are comparing a profession with people. I understand examining this issue from an economic viewpoint seems a bit cold, but I believe this is the only way to protect the people themselves rather than making it a moral issue and thereby working from self-interest.

As we can see in the U.S. prostitution is still rampant. Economic demand is what maintains the supply of prostitutes. If it were made illegal in places where it is not, then the only thing that will change is the form of the supply. And as in the U.S., women would still be beaten, raped, and tortured. Only now they cannot report this abuse because they will also get in trouble. So if you want to find this information you cannot rely on police statistics but have to gather them first hand. HBO does some good documentaries on prostitution that sheds some light on some of these issues.

Making prostitution illegal not only penalizes the customers and the suppliers, but also the workers who are often women trying to make a living in the most cost-effective manner they know how. When we try to solve problems with morality as the leading force, this presents the danger of introducing different problems or only shifting the form of the problem.

I would agree that enforcing laws decrease demand. From an economic standpoint this is similar to creating a trade barrier. This in turn creates waste. It is difficult to translate this back to socio-economics since this waste is monetary, but I would argue that this represents money loss. So I would suspect the behavior still exists; only no money is being traded. In other words, it creates an increase to sex and violent crimes. It has been years since I looked at this subject, but I'll see what actual numbers I can find.

Enforcing laws usually occurs only in a couple of cases. First enforcement tends to be used to push prostitution away from wealthy neighborhoods to poor neighborhood, thereby increasing the danger to the women. Or two, enforcement is used as a political tool as Giuliani used it to clean up Times Square a while back. His action was great for NY and the local economy their, but he used it to imply that he eliminated prostitution and illicit acts from NY when he just push it to the alleyways.

In the U.S. many, and maybe most, laws are not enforced until political pressure is applied. To see this, compare crime statistics between poor and wealthy areas in the U.S. Then compare how cases were closed. When a young white girl is abducted all the news channels forgo all other news to talk about the story. When a young black girl is abducted the public usually does not hear the story. For you lawyers out there, compare how cases are tried with a public defender versus a private criminal attorney. Public defenders for one thing have impossible numbers of cases to deal with and are usually paid less. So many cases tend to be pleaded out where a private attorney may have fought it. Laws are selectively enforced and tend to be enforced to favor the wealthy. Prostitutes tend not to be in the wealthy class.

An issue I have not even mentioned yet is the stigma that comes with prostitution. This applies to both prostitutes and potential customers. If prostitution were made legal and proper protections for women (and men) were created, I suspect many other crimes like rape would decrease. Again there is a problem with measuring this because many sexual assaults go unreported because those involved may be ashamed or embarrassed (but again I'll see what numbers I can find). Creating a market creates an outlet. While this would not solve other problems, it would alleviate them. For this I would compare prohibition (U.S. banning of alcohol) with prostitution.

Making something illegal always creates a black market. Politicians have to decide which is easier to live with, the black market or the “objectionable” activity. When people are involved, such as with slavery or prostitution, we face a moral issue on both sides. By making the activity illegal the black market creates morally objectionable abuses to human beings. By legalizing the activity we can create protections for the people involved, but then must face the moral objections from certain groups of people who do not like the activity.

Returning to the issue of slavery, the words we use seems to make slavery illegal, but we need to examine what aspects were made illegal when we compare it to prostitution. The central idea is that we made ownership or equating blacks with property illegal. We did not affect the ability for one human to work for another, but we did affect this through other laws, such as the minimum wage law.

The issue of prostitution is different because most people want to eliminate the act and then any abuse is secondary. Any country that has anti-slavery laws should already protect prostitutes from this aspect. So perhaps the problem here is not creating new laws but encouraging enforcement of existing laws. Then we run into the problem I mentioned of a division between the wealthy class and the poor. Perhaps the problem is that people don’t want to pay to enforce existing laws, but instead prefer to make it easier on themselves by imprisoning not only the abuser, but the abused also.

Personally I think we will always have people exhibiting moral outrage no matter which path we choose, so I pick the path that actually protects people from abuse and possibly death.

Gypsy said...

Buttercup, have you seen Born Into Brothels? I suspect you have, but thought I'd mention it just in case. It's such an eye-opening.

I can imagine that your trip to India is overhwhelming and emotional. I hope it will also be inspiring. :) Can't wait to hear more!

Gregory A. Becerra said...


Here is a website to check out organized by sex workers:

They have compiled some documented statistics at

I found this after a couple seconds of searching the web. I'm sure I can find some more supporting statistics with more exhaustive research.

Gregory A. Becerra said...


Here's a ready made list of resources after a couple more seconds of looking:

Lots of references here including academic papers and books.