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Prostitution is illegal, but the government routinely overlooks brothels that operate openly and the millions employed by that industry. Many people are born into it or trafficked into it at a very young age. It's rare that any get out. One woman has devoted much of her life to helping the children of sex workers break that cycle. NPR's Windsor Johnston traveled to Kolkata - or Calcutta - to meet her.
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WINDSOR JOHNSTON, BYLINE: At the entrance of Sonagachi, India's largest red light district, three prostitutes wearing bright yellow and red saris stand in a huddle at the corner. Their pimps, or babus, are close by watching. Multi-story brothels line the narrow alleys. Inside, young women walk around in towels while others sit cross-legged on dingy mattresses. The stench of raw sewage and traces of bleach seeps through the rooms. This is where Rashida Bibi (ph) works. She was trafficked from Bangladesh at the age of 16 with the promise of a well-paying job - a nanny.
RASHIDA BIBI: (Through interpreter) But after giving me shelter for a few days, a woman told me, I cannot keep you anymore, and you have to start working as a prostitute. I was very young and didn't know what to do, so the older women dressed me up and took me to the main street and negotiated money with the clients.
JOHNSTON: That was almost 30 years ago, she thinks. Bibi guesses she's 45, but she isn't sure. She can't read or write. And for her, there will be no way out of this life - but for her children, perhaps.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: One, two, three - start.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).
JOHNSTON: Bibi's 15-year-old daughter is enrolled in a program called New Light, which cares for and educates the children of sex workers in the red light district of Kalighat. Each night, the kids sing the Indian national anthem before getting to work on their evening lessons. New Light's founder, Urmi Basu, arrived here nearly 20 years ago as a sociologist.
URMI BASU: I walked in through this narrow lane with rooms on both sides - rooms measuring, more or less, 5 feet by 7 feet. It was dark, miserable, forgotten space. Sometimes, I saw an older woman holding onto a baby, sitting right outside the doorway where a mother was entertaining her client inside.
JOHNSTON: The experience changed her life.
BASU: I felt, how can I go back from here and not do anything?
JOHNSTON: Basu grew up in Calcutta in a middle-class family of social activists. After deciding she wanted to help, residents of Kalighat gave her a small room on the first floor of a two-story building to set up a nighttime drop-off shelter for kids.
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JOHNSTON: Today, it's grown into a place where children can get help with homework, some basic health care, clothing and food. Mostly, it's a safe place to sleep when their mothers are working. Basu encourages the children to imagine a different future.
BASU: Your life, your experience can make change in other lives. That is our purpose to be on this planet.
JOHNSTON: Tonight, Basu was talking to a group of young women who are sitting in a circle at New Light's home for girls.
BASU: Our purpose is just not to eat, not to sleep, you know - not to laugh, and OK sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and then to get married, have children and die - no. No - our lives are meant to change the world around us, beginning with ourselves.
JOHNSTON: One of them is 15-year-old Shibani Singh (ph). She was 6 when her mom died of AIDS-related tuberculosis. She says Basu stepped in to fill the void.
SHIBANI SINGH: She's our role model - our inspiration - a great pillar for us, standing in front of us, guiding us, seeing us.
JOHNSTON: Now Shibani's studying fashion design. She'd like to eventually open up her own shop, making clothes and accessories.
SHIBANI: All kinds of, like, Indian style, Western styles - many kind of gowns and saris - and also make earrings with jewelry.
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JOHNSTON: New Light now also has a home for boys. Tonight, teenagers play traditional Indian tunes on tabla drums. 19-year-old Rakesh Singh (ph) has lived here for three years and dreams of opening his own restaurant one day.
RAKESH SINGH: Very much, I like that Chinese food - Chinese, Spanish, Mexican. Sometimes, I Google cheese chili chicken - chili chicken.
JOHNSTON: Basu says more than 600 children have passed through New Light in its 18 years. They've gone on to jobs in restaurants, hotels, gas stations. Some have gone to college and now teach at New Light. Not one is a sex worker, says Basu. But keeping the program running has been an ongoing challenge. New Light operates solely on private donations, and Basu sometimes worries about having enough money to pay her staff. But she says her biggest concern is keeping New Light a safe place for the kids.
BASU: I can probably imagine or plan where we would like to be, but there is no guarantee that we would get there because anything can happen at any moment. There can be a riot. Some pimps can come and tear our place down. There can be a fire. I could be shot or killed or knifed - whatever.
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JOHNSTON: Dusk settles over New Light as students sit in meditation before the start of the evening class. The demand is constant. Basu says every time one graduates, another child shows up. Windsor Johnston, NPR News, Calcutta.
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