Children from the red light areas of Kolkata are twice discriminated against. Poverty can be a major determinant in society, when it comes to achieving access to resources. But when a child belongs to a red-light area, he is held answerable for the (real or perceived) sins of his/her parents. To address this gross violation, and enable such excluded children to speak up about their problems, UNICEF and Sanlaap, a Kolkata-based NGO working in the red light areas have brought out Youth Speak, a newsletter edited by, and catering to excluded and underprivileged children from the red light and adjoining slum areas of Kolkata. The initiative is particularly relevant in the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which recognizes children’s rights to expression, information and involvement in decisions, and believes that by exercising these, children are better able to survive and be protected.
With a funding of US $ 15,000, the venture, according to Sohini Roychowdhury of UNICEF, “seeks to form a peer-to peer network of children and young people to enable long-term advocacy and support. Besides, it aims to strengthen the capacity of excluded children around those issues that affect them by creating a platform to express their opinions, and looks forward to build a partnership with the mainstream media to focus on issues that otherwise lack adequate visibility.” The newsletter highlights issues affecting those between the ages of 14 and 24.
The publication is a Sanlaap initiative aimed at breaking barriers that prevent these youth from being heard in the mainstream press. The most significant aspect of the newsletter is that it is run by an editorial board comprising the children, who pick and choose the writings, and drawings themselves, with some assistance from Sanlaap volunteers. Hence, the publication truly serves as a mouthpiece for these children.
Brought up in the red-light areas of Kolkata’s hoary Bowbazaar, 22–year-old Rahul Goswami has only too well known what facing social barbs at school and other institutions in the public realm can mean. Taking advantage of the UNICEF’s media training project, he had even voiced the anguish of such excluded children in a one-minute video, “A Story,” that made it to the semi-finals at the UNICEF-UNCRC one-minute video contest.
Hence, the emergence of Youth Speak under the aegis of the UNICEF/Sanlaap’s Child and Youth-led Newsletter and Media Project has meant a lot to him. Today, as the coordinator of Youth Speak, this second–year student of Surendranath Evening College is busy letting others from backgrounds similar to his, speak out to the world at large.
The dank confines of brothels, the cages that confine the sex-workers and the circumstances their children find themselves trapped in, are reflected in the writings published in this bilingual (Hindi and Bengali) publication which is to be brought out once every two months. The same goes with the poems and writings of rescued child sex-workers who are now living in shelter homes.
For instance, 17-year-old rescued child sex-worker Anju Chauhan’s Bengali poem Chhoto Pakhi (Little bird), reflects her anguish:
I am a small bird
I live imprisoned in a cage
They don’t give me any grain
Nor do they let me flap my wings
Another rescued girl, living at the Sneha home run by Sanlaap, writes, in her poem, Maa:
You daughter will grow very big someday,
You have my word, Mother,
Do bear this in mind.
The publication reserves a good deal of space to the voices of the marginalized children and youth, such as those living on station platforms. An article on infants infected with HIV/AIDS declares the solidarity of the editors with these unfortunate individuals, Tomader Paashe Aamrao (We are also with you).
However, in catering to excluded children, the newsletter does not confine itself to children at its rescue home or those from the red light areas of Kidderpore, Bowbazar, Sonagacchi (Sovabazar), Kalighat and Tollygunge where it runs drop-in centres. Since several children from adjoining slums also make use of the coaching facilities at the drop-in centres, their representation on the editorial board also ensures that the poverty of the marginalized finds expression in the newsletter. Thus, another member of the editorial board - Ajay Thakur, belongs to the Charu Market area of Kolkata, and attends the Tollygunge drop-in centre. A student of the commerce stream at the higher secondary level, Ajay distributes newspapers prior to attending school every morning. Seven years at the Sanlaap drop-in centre has made him aware enough to reach out as a “peer supporter” for vulnerable children and conduct workshops on child sexual abuse, HIV/ AIDS, trafficking. Although he has not yet decided on his vocation, Ajay is keen on acquiring skills that will enable him to look after his three siblings and widowed mother, who currently works as a domestic help.
Similarly, Santoshi Singh also hails from the slums around Tollygunge. For her, Youth Speak was a vehicle to have her drawings and poems published. Keen to grow up educated and independent, 17-year-old Santoshi values the stipend she gets as a member of the editorial board of Youth Speak. This student of Kailash Vidyamandir is an outspoken critic of the restrictions girls are subjected to, such as early marriage and the open violation of the rights of working children everywhere. “For every little thing I want to do, I must repeatedly seek permission from the elders at home. I just cannot do anything at all.’’ These thoughts find expression in her essay on what independence ought to mean, where she emphasizes, “Every individual ought to have the freedom to achieve what he wants from within; only then can he move ahead in life.’’
The colourful newsletter has a good number of beautiful drawings and an attractive masthead, which declares in English: “Our right is to be heard.” This is a re-launch of the newsletter, which was initially brought out last year, and stopped publication after 10 issues since, according to Roychowdhury, “The project came to a close.”
The recent re-launch-under a new editorial board is aimed at building on the lessons learnt, and reaching out to a larger number of people with the problems that plague these excluded parts of the inner city, according to Sanlaap National Co-ordinator Ilona Bhattacharya.
For a newsletter that is a first of its kind, one sincerely hopes to see Youth Speak emerge as a voice that is bold enough to uphold the rights of the vulnerable minors in red light areas who must fight innumerable odds to educate themselves and lift their lives out of the mire they are condemned to.