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Over the last two years, events have transpired in India that have raised alarming questions about life for the women living here. The UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report shows that in terms of gender inequality in South Asia, only women living in Afghanistan have it worse than in India. Even noticeably poorer countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, which have lower HDI scores overall, score better. This begs the question: do women have a voice in India?
There is at least one female voice which can be heard loud and clear. It’s a voice that is steadfast in its resolve to promote gender equality and fight the abuse of women and children. This voice belongs to Urmi Basu. Since 2000, Basu, the founder of the non-profit organization New Light, has dedicated her time to standing up for those most in need, brazenly doing so in a country notorious for misogyny, forced marriages and slavery.
While most developed countries have relegated slavery to the dustbin of history, India has done anything but. Experts have stated that India, with its estimated 14 million slaves, has the highest concentration of slavery in all of its forms. Many of these slaves stem from arranged marriages, where young women and girls, especially those with emotional, physical and learning disabilities, are lured in under duplicitous pretenses, only to end up the victims of sex trafficking. It is a seemingly hopeless situation, and the ignominy, sadly and shamefully, usually falls upon the victim.
People are plentiful in the slums of Kolkata, but much like potable water, opportunities to emerge from the squalor are seldom found. Urmi Basu is determined to change that, and her non-profit organization New Light offers shelter, security, healthcare, and educational opportunities to those most in need: women and children. Before founding New Light, Basu, a native of Kolkata, spent fifteen years working in the developmental and social sector, rallying for the rights of India’s most vulnerable. This work on the behalf of sex workers, trafficking victims, street children, and members of the LGBT community led to the creation of New Light.
In 2001 Basu opened New Light’s first shelter in the red-light district of Kalighat, one of Kolkata’s oldest, roughest and poorest neighborhoods. These two dingy rooms, situated off a dark alley, provided a handful of Kalighat’s sex workers with a much-needed safe haven for their children. Since then, New Light has grown in scale, moving the crèche cum shelter into a larger area above a temple and opening two additional shelters for young women at high risk of being abused or trafficked. A shelter for boys is also in the works, which aims to get at-risk young men off of the streets and away from pimps and sex traffickers. In all, New Light now supports over 1,000 individuals, and offers services ranging from microfinance to HIV/AIDS prevention. New Light also continues to ramp up its attack on child prostitution and the sex trade: in 2012 Basu met with Hillary Clinton to discuss the issues faced by women in India during the Secretary of State’s visit to Kolkata.
Urmi Basu podcast
During our India term, we had the great fortune of hosting Urmi Basu as a guest speaker. Her podcast can be found here. It’s a wonderful conversation and includes a question and answer session with our students. We’d love your feedback!
See the children
In 2013, THINK Global School IB Language & Literature teacher Breanna Reynolds and her partner Kyle Vaughn put out an e-book collecting the artwork, writing, portraits, and life stories of the children served by New Light. Their work can be viewed below:
Half The Sky
Urmi Basu and New Light’s story are documented in the Nicholas Kristof book Half The Sky and on the second night of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a four-hour television series developed for PBS.
Want to get involved? Learn more how you can donate on the New Light homepage.