From Red Light to New Light: Urmi Basu on Global Women Empowerment

29 mins read

“If you think about it, we have almost half the world at this table,” Urmi Basu smiled, lifting her glass to her lips. “India, China, Bangladesh…” Vanessa Meng ’19, from Beijing, and I, a half-Bangladeshi American, looked at each other across our dinner and smiled too. Basu was visiting from Kolkata, India, where she has run the world renowned non-governmental organization New Light for the past 16 years. Every day of her life is dedicated to fighting gender-based violence.
“Cheers to women,” she offered, “Beautiful strong women.”
I first heard about Basu in the seventh grade through Nicholas Kristoff’s award winning book and documentary “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” She founded the organization in 2000 in the red light district of Kalighat, Kolkata – one of the largest red light districts in Asia – with a mission to both provide education and prevent violence against sex workers and their children. Inspired by work like Basu’s (and even writing my college application essay on the matter), I was a bit starstruck to hear that she was coming to Swarthmore. Even more to my surprise, I learned that Meng had arranged the visit after spending the summer in Kolkata working directly with Basu and New Light.
Meng, too, had learned about Basu through Half the Sky – a reading assigned in Professor Sa’ed Atshan’s Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies course. Meng did some research, applied to be an intern, and was invited to India; “a super chill process,” she confirmed.  With support funding from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Meng spent four weeks among a host of other interns in the organization’s guest house to assist with day-to-day operations of the project. Here, she acknowledged the unique emotional duality of both great helplessness and hopefulness.
“[You see] some great things and [you see] some horrible things…but they’re all very human, small moments.” Meng hopes to return to New Light in the near future.
When Meng first introduced me to Basu, Basu outlined the story of New Light’s progression even more eloquently than any writings about her work. With no social scientists to lay the blueprint and no guarantees of success, her bold confidence and dedication were at the forefront of ensuring any impact.
“Our primary focus tool has always been education; that’s where it began 16 years ago with eight students and $200,” Basu noted.
Today, more than 500 students have gone through the program, the work spans seven locations in the city, and sustains three safe residential homes for students. Amidst the chaos of poverty and violence, the constant challenge of this work is in convincing mothers that another life outside of intergenerational prostitution is possible. Many children come in with histories of addiction and abuse, and New Light offers an alternative to not only foster survival, but for individuals to thrive.
“I would easily give the rest of my life to this work,” Basu made sure we understood.
Basu comes from a family of activists, including a grandfather who worked with Mahatma Gandhi. Her experiences growing up have undoubtedly shaped the value system that she moves through the world with.
“You have to embrace your own vulnerability…that’s where you strengthen. It’s allowed me to find that sixth sense that I could walk into a room and know which girls are in danger.” Basu said. “I’ve never felt that it’s something that I’m not supposed to talk about.”
Basu radiates a kind warmth and natural ability to make others feel safe – often, she receives calls from women she’s never met asking for advice, whether they are calling from a brothel or a job at the tax collector’s office in the city. Her unwavering dedication to empowerment and human connection is one of the many reasons that she was chosen as a recipient of a blessing from His Holiness The Dalai Lama, under the title Unsung Heroes of Compassion 2009 for promoting compassion and peace.
Basu and I discussed at length the day-to-day community life in the Kalighat red light district.
“Women will have 5-by-7 rooms, but everything in that tiny space is perfectly organized. Sarees folded and stacked, a bangle rack, cooking utensils under the bed…it’s life in miniature, but within not much space they create all [of] the things we take for granted. In that there’s their fantasies, and love, vulnerabilities, passions, commitments…” Basu explained. “These are women in prostitution, you would imagine that they would not be shy about anything, but they can be so shy. If you talk to her about her body…maybe she has never even had a bath without [some] clothes [on]!”
Meng stressed the importance of this humanization, especially from the positionality of outsiders.
“We grow up with implicit ideas through media…that it is one big story,” Meng explained, referring to anti-trafficking efforts and women empowerment, “but women they don’t look at it as one big story. They are not looking at  this as a way to state their empowerment or equality…this is just life. Stories are much more complicated. They’re not stories yet they’re just lives…A lot of interns would take pictures and ask questions like, ‘How do u feel about being empowered’ and it’s totally irrelevant to their lives.”
Meeting with Basu and Meng the night after Swarthmore’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, I inquired about the status of transgendered people in the Kalighat sex worker community.
“The Hijra (transwomen) face discrimination of course. Like everywhere, there are constant threats of violence. But, I actually think that they’re a bit more protected and less targeted within the actual red lights district,” Basu smiled, “They truly have become the fashion mentors for the [cisgendered] women.” Despite notions of community all women know to travel in groups so as to minimize their susceptibility to harassment.
“There are  separate communities within the red light district, but people are really packed together. There is no difference between the private and public. Eastern cultures don’t have individualism; people are there for you and you’re supposed to be there for everyone else. There’s a strong sense of solidarity,” Basu explained. “In the middle, middle of the night, if someone is sick, they will pool money, they will call for an ambulance…take taxis, take turns to attending to the person in the hospital, young girls and boys will stand by and bring food.”
Basu discussed with me the diversity of projects that the organization is currently involved in.
“We had very interesting workshops happening from October; photography, poetry writing, self-care, human centered design workshop – that one was based on our Mukti project.” Mukti is an empowerment project to manufacture biodegradable sanitary napkins in partnership with the organization Village Volunteers. Recently, Mukti Women won the Project Inspire People’s Choice through UN Women and the Singapore Committee for UN Women. “Senior students [of New Light] collected data from the field and met with girls who never had access [to these products] and asked how they feel about them. It’s about making sure it would actually help them, or seeing is it something we as outsiders would be imposing on you.”
The joy Basu derives from discussing her students is contagious.
“What was most wonderful was to see how when you give people a set of complex challenges they come up with their own solutions — that kind of critical thinking is absent in our regular academic curriculum.” Basu explained.
In a recent photography workshop, for example, children were given cameras and went into their communities to photograph friends, family, living quarters, and shelter. Recently, these pictures were blown up in scale and paired with graffiti to transform the walls of a nearby ally into a vibrant community arts space.  
Additionally, Basu recognizes the unique opportunities for power and resistance embedded in active self-care and group-care.
“When I do ‘love yourself’ workshops, I get [the women of the brothels] to touch each other. These women are never touched with affection…there is always an exchange and some power dynamics involved. Here, one puts a mask on another person, braids the hair…those are the kinds of things that they start howling, they say we’ve never received so much love. It is genuine intimacy.”
In her time with the organization, Meng also hosted a poetry workshop in the local Dalit center each evening. Dalits, identified as the “lowest caste” of Indians, receive discrimination from all facets of society. Rather than just focusing on teaching poetry, Meng’s primary motivation was on encouraging people to create their own work — an agency of expression that we may often take for granted. Despite her impressive work, Meng stays grounded in her humbleness.
“I’m not here to change anyone’s life.”
As a potential philosophy major with an interest in ecofeminism, Meng understands critical approaches to humanitarianism, which necessitate that her role in New Light was one of learning as much as possible and helping in whatever ways the organization determined were needed.
Basu sang praises of Meng’s keen understandings and rationality.
“At this point, I must say Vanessa did amazing work. Her level of motivation was perfect, she was available to experience everything. She came to Kolkata exactly the way I advise people to do. Get into the ocean and go with the flow…or you will fight it and get exhausted. Keep your sanity and your focus. It’s not much like Swarthmore is it, Vanessa?”
“It’s not like anything,” Meng laughed. “….for me I knew it wouldn’t be easy. It was very emotionally difficult.” Earlier, Meng and I had discussed the many tears of New Light interns and volunteers who felt lost when immersed in conditions that they could do little to change. “To form some connections with the kids knowing their stories was difficult. The hardest part for me is coming back and trying to adequately tell people the experience.”
In Kolkata, girls are often unwittingly sold by their parents – or convinced on their own to pursue a new opportunity – under the guise of “a good job” in the city. Here, many find themselves entered suddenly into a slavery where they no longer have the ability to control what happens next.
Basu stressed the importance of starting with the understanding that all parents want what is best for their children.
“[When I realized that] children sleep under the bed while mothers are with a client…it challenged what I thought I know about love and family,” Basu admitted. “When we began, we had no idea that we would set up residential homes for people age [zero] to eighteen, then eighteen to twenty-three.”
After some years, the organization acknowledged the importance of continuing support for children after they turn eighteen. “They cannot be alone if they’re not with a family…when we support them through university education or professional training than two or three girls can rent an apartment together.”
While donors initially insisted that New Light stay focused on the girls, boys needed to be assured to practice equality as well.
“Some would be so resentful to their mothers at 13 years old…imagine how disempowering,” Basu sighed. Her solution: build a sustainable home to support boys as well.
“At our [residential] boy’s home, the discussion about gender equality is very strong. Most of our staff members are women, so they are used to seeing that. We have many volunteers and people in our group who are senior teachers. We also look for young male teachers to be positive role models…many of them live locally and they understand that a different kind of life is possible.”
Basu did not hesitate when asked about overarching goals of the work over the years.  
“I want all of our kids to get a good education…empowering them through compassion, they should pay it forward – they should treat their mothers with compassion. This is not a life that anyone chose. I often fear that [children] will abandon their mothers. I always tell the children that whatever Mom had to go through was because she had no choice. But here are new choices.”
Basu talked proudly of the diverse success of her students. One individual from the very first class recently qualified to join the Carnival Cruise line as a chef based out of Miami. Others will study social work, computer graphics, and many even return to work with New Light directly. It was fascinating for me to note that unlike many organization, this education does not push students towards one field or another – a move away, in my opinion, from market-based identity formation.
“I am a great believer in human sentiment…every individual has a particular level of potential and a specific direction,” Basu explained. Here, opening up as many opportunities as possible is at the forefront of humanistic work.
During her two day visit to Swarthmore, Basu began her visit with an intimate luncheon in Bond Hall. Students took notes on the intricacies of New Lights’s work – providing women with microcredit, supporting them to open bank accounts, and teaching them how to file police reports and complaints. Meghan Kelly ’18, one of the guests in attendance, asked about the role of economic incentives in prostitution and trafficking.
“It is usually profitable,” Basu responded. “It is one trade where you don’t need a warehouse, you don’t need inventory, you have cash, there is zero investment. Zero holding space. What better business could there be? Just praying on somebody, making a couple of phone calls, make this person appear from point A to B to C…and every step of the way you make money.”
Kelly pushed this idea further: “What if there was no profit involved?”
“Prostitution has been in human society for a long time,” Basu realistically explained, referencing societies like ancient Greece. “I personally am not here to stop it.” New Light states that they are not for the legalization of prostitution, and Basu has no moral stand on the concept of sex work itself.
“…everyone who is an adult with free will; I am not their moral guardian. The question is when people are dealt with as commodities, when they are forced as slaves and [it’s] not something they want to do.”
Nikhita Luthra ‘17 followed with a thought on how these systems are maintained by those outside of the trafficking industry. “Do you feel that there’s a refusal to acknowledge problems [of sexual violence]? Sometimes, there’s a sense of so much pride in the country to acknowledge things…. they say ‘oh well it happens everywhere —’”
“— it’s an idiotic nationalism.” Basu confirmed. “It is a completely misplaced sense of superiority.”
Basu is no stranger to working against “the system.”
“They’re uncomfortable because I talk about pervasive child sexual abuse.” In public forums, Basu has been criticized by nationalists arguing that she is just “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Additionally, many NGOs of this sort face criticism for appearing to focus on helping individuals instead of making structural change.
“How can you make change? …[W]e have to create other sets of possibilities. No structure changes without resistance. Diligence and patience are very important..and curiosity.”
Later that day, on November 22, Meng introduced Basu to a crowd in Science Center 101, a discussion hosted by i20, the Women’s Resource Center, the peace and conflict studies department, the Office of Student Engagement, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, the Forum for Free Speech, and the Office of Student Engagement. Despite the many people rolling their suitcases towards the train station for Thanksgiving break, I was so pleased to see a large turnout of students, faculty, and staff eager to hear from my new inspiring friend.
“To the gentleman in this room…” Basu began. “We often feel to only be talking amongst ourselves…and then we talk to the boys. I’m inspired to see all of you boys.” (“Demand paternity leave,” she would later address men again, “that is gender equality.”)  
In explaining her involvement in the work, she began by detailing the Caste system as an Indian societal reality that is present every day. Women in prostitution are deemed to be in the very lowest social standing, no matter what caste their family had belonged to. Harsha Sen ’19, of Kolkata, was given the microphone at the end of Basu’s talk.
“I walked past the Kalighat red light district every day on my way to school.” A moment of reflection followed.
But that invisibility and normalization is not unique to Sen’s experience. Earlier, Meng had reflected a similar sentiment.
“Human trafficking happens in the states,” Meng asserted. “Sex slavery is so real here just less obvious, without red light districts.”
“Every city has a red light district that is ignored,” Basu added. “We would be fooling ourselves if we said that there were no rape in Sweden.”
Challenges are present in all social institutions, which is where advocates like Basu must step in. Law enforcement agencies are known to say that “we are too busy to lodge this complaint.” For New Light, leases have been called off the day of lease acceptance, when renters found out that the organization work with prostitutes. Stigmas, and misconceptions, of sex work remain undisguised.
Basu reminded us that the trade is morphing on an international level. “It is for child soldiers, religious indoctrination, organ trafficking, sex slavery… these are disenfranchised uninformed people being prayed upon.”
At the end of her talk, one thing was most salient to me: the love and power of women is at the center of our fight. To the women in the Swarthmore audience, Basu encouraged creating circles of sisterhood and working towards making male colleagues, fathers, and friends aware of what it means to be a woman.
“Don’t fear being branded as a feminist…it’s not leprosy,” Basu laughed.
“Women can be there for one another…just by stopping by, your personal investment of time and energy into another being’s life has tremendous impact,” She continued. “Sometimes I will look at a woman and think ‘my life and your life are different because of where I was born and the education I had.’ Otherwise we have the same things happening.”
In terms of tangible action, Basu suggested with conviction that students seek out and volunteer time with organizations and resources that are already in existence.
“[Alternatively] since you people are into writing, you can create a blog of sexual assault on campus. Network with other schools in your area, create a safety net, create an app, have discussions with younger people…so for them to always stay conscious of the fact that we as women are not objects.”
Basu is also an outspoken advocate for the necessity of public outcry.
“We can not let these atrocities pass in the name of ‘culture.’ We cannot let these atrocities pass in the name of tradition. In any [country], there is nothing good about tradition when it is inhuman. When it is exploitative. When it destroys people’s autonomy. Those are not conversations about respecting people’s culture—how did slavery get abolished here? People around the world said it is not right. And the sense of justice, what is right what is wrong, is universal. It is not a culture-bound tradition at all.”
When thinking about cultural norms and progress, I have always deeply appreciated the quote by James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
As Basu reiterated, our recent American election cycle, and the stigmas that accompanied the campaign, are nothing to keep quiet about and accept.
“This election…felt like 30 years pushed back, but it should be a given that we are all treated equally,” Basu proposed. “As a visitor…I shall not keep quiet. It is unbelievable what has just passed in your country. But this country is a beautiful country.”
For that reason, our work towards equity is as important now as ever. Moving forward, women empowerment must be a global priority at governmental, civil, internalized levels.
Like Baldwin, Basu cherishes and criticizes the state of India: “If I’m willing to own the beautiful things of my culture… I have to be willing to own the darkness.”  
Basu undoubtedly owns her responsibility to shine new light on that darkness.

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