When Urmi Basu was 9 years old and growing up in the genteel suburbs of Kolkata (Calcutta), India, she survived an attack on her family by a rival political group.
“My father was stabbed in three places,” she said. “Our house was burnt down. All our possessions were completely destroyed.”
In spite of the attack, her father, a doctor, refused to abandon his community. Later, he even forgave the attackers.
“I can go to any place and not be afraid,” said Basu. “I had great examples in my day.”
This spirit of resistance drives Basu to continue the work she does to help break the cycle of sex slavery in the Kolkata’s red-light district. Petite and soft-spoken, Basu shrugs off the danger she faces every day.
“If I were afraid, I couldn’t have managed to do what I do,” she said. “I could have gotten kidnapped or even bumped off.”
In 2010, Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation’s Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum set out on a sabbatical trip to New Light India, the organization Basu founded in 2000. New Light provides shelter, food, education, recreation, and health care to sex workers and their children. It also works to educate the Southeast Asian public and the world at large about human trafficking, gender inequality, violence against women and children, and the deplorable conditions of prostitution. New Light was featured in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn’s documentary “Half the Sky.”
Basu came to Seattle in late April and early May as a guest of Herzl-Ner Tamid and the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. On May 5, Basu spoke on “Breaking the Cycle of Human Trafficking” at a joint congregation event.
“I was hoping that when I came back [from the sabbatical] I would be able to do something to help New Light,” said Rosenbaum. He partnered with the church, and together they raised $25,000 for a housing complex for women over 18 with no place to live.
Basu also spoke at Hillel at the University of Washington and to a UW class on global mental health. She met with the Child Rights and You (CRY) chapter at Microsoft, the editorial board and a columnist at the Seattle Times, Village Volunteers, See Your Impact, and with private groups. She was a guest on KUOW’s “Weekday” program as well.
Human trafficking and sex slavery are thriving industries, with India leading the way. According to Basu, girls are trafficked from Indian villages, as well as across the porous borders of Nepal and Bangladesh.
“Pimps go across the border, propose marriage to a family or promise jobs, and bring them to Kolkata and sell them into prostitution,” she told JTNews.
As incomprehensible as it may be to Western sensibilities, families — strapped for cash and accountable for dowries — rarely look for their daughters, assuming they’re working in the city. It’s only when the money stops coming back that they begin to wonder. Yet even then, families of women sold into sex slavery rarely take their daughters back. In this traditional society, the burden of an unmarriageable child is too heavy and laden with stigma. Maybe one in 1,000 mothers will look for her daughter, Basu said.
“It’s literally abandoning your child,” she said. “We are a country of so many people, a family thinks, okay, one child off the list of my responsibilities.”
Basu has witnessed enormous growth in New Light over the past 13 years. “In the beginning, [the prostitutes] were very doubtful…they couldn’t even imagine what was possible for their daughters to achieve.”
But now, “for the girls, it is like, ‘This is my birthright.’ It is such a contrast,” she explained. “They can walk into store, any library…raise their voices and say, ‘This is what we want.’”
Sex workers in India live completely outside the caste system and at the very bottom of the social ladder, which Basu cites as a challenge. Another complicating factor, Basu told her audience at Hillel, is the Hindu belief system.
“Fate and karma is another thing that shackles our country,” she said.
This leads people to believe their current situations are responses to a past life, and often removes a sense of responsibility.
“We as human beings can alter our fate,” said Basu. “If we can save one life, five lives, 20 lives, we’ll consider ourselves successful.”
At the same time, Basu invokes the Hindu goddesses as models for her job, particularly when she has to deal with people who perpetuate the idea that prostitutes can never become anything better.
“When people are nasty, you really have to deal with them that way. There’s no point of talking polite langue with people who don’t understand that,” said Basu. “You have many other divinities in the form of very peaceful, very beautiful women [like Lakshmi]. And you also have the Kali, the destroyer of all evil; you have Chinnamasta, who has no head. She’s actually beheaded herself and is holding her head in her hand while blood is spurting out of her neck.
“If you want Lakshmi,” she said, “be ready to take Chinnamasta.”
Pulling the rug out from under the pimps is potentially dangerous work, but Basu shirks fear of death.
“We all have our designated moments,” she said. “It’s just that one second between being alive and being dead. And I’m dead; OK, fine I’m dead. I won’t be worried about that.
“The reason I feel why we have not had a huge deal of trouble [with the pimps] is because at the end of the day they know that what they are doing is completely not right,” Basu said. “I’ve walked down the streets and pimps are sitting on both sides, and they usually look away.”
One of Basu’s current projects is raising money for a home for high school-age boys.
They need to “educate the boys so they know that pimping is not an option,” Basu said, adding that “issues of poverty and livelihood are so intrinsically woven into this.”
A private donor from Herzl-Ner Tamid has provided the down payment for the building.
Basu’s optimism for her organization echoes another Herzl: Theodore. “If we continue to dream a little bit by bit,” she said, “we will surely be able to achieve something.”