Kolkata for the Kids

[originally published April 10, 2012]

I’m still here!

I’ve been in and out of Pune for about the last two months now, most recently returning from a few weeks up in the wilds of the north country. Carys hopped over from the States and we spent a whirlwind two weeks traveling, trying to bribe government officials, starring in a Hollywood production and ending our trip at a funeral (yes). But with play should come a bit of work, so for the last stretch of time I visited some rugby sites in Delhi and Kolkata.

 Slim-to-none are my photos in front of the Taj Mahal, but Carys and I procured plenty at various bus stands. Dharmasala, spring 2012.

Slim-to-none are my photos in front of the Taj Mahal, but Carys and I procured plenty at various bus stands. Dharmasala, spring 2012.

While I love my Delhi folk (shout-out to the kids at the Laj who are never short of a bed for me to crash in or sarees to drape around me), I really loved Kolkata. I wish I could have stayed a longer (and many thanks to Sandra and Sahar who welcomed me into their home and fed me lots of tea!). However, duty calls for a few days in Pune before I take off again this weekend.

I had been meaning to get to Kolkata for, well, ever. The Jungle Crows rugby program, headed by a British gentleman named Paul Walsh, is a tour-de-force — they have a very successful men’s and women’s club side as well as various community service activities that the ruggers take part in. I wanted to see what they were all about. While in the neighborhood, I first arranged for a meeting at an NGO recommended to me by a professor at the South/Central Asia Fulbright conference.


So… let’s start there.


When I showed up at the Jabala Action Research Organization office to talk about their programs, the woman I was supposed to be meeting wasn’t in. Oh India, I thought. This happens sometimes. Schedules, appointments and time can be pretty flexible concepts here. But come inside they said, and wait. I flicked my shoes off at the door and sat. After a few minutes another woman came in with an explanation: a brothel in Mumbai had been raided late last night. Eight girls were coming in and the woman that I was hoping to meet was waiting for the girls at the safe house outside of Kolkata.


Well, I thought, that’s the best possible reason to skip out on your schedule: because you’re busy saving someone’s life.

 A little one in a city dump outside of Kolkata.

A little one in a city dump outside of Kolkata.

A scary statistic: over 45,000 girls go missing in India every year. Where do they go? Desperation drives them. Sometimes they’re mislead by the promise of a good a job in the city, or perhaps they get ‘married’ off. Some are  blatantly kidnapped. Some are sold by their families for a price that amounts to a few dollars. All of these nefarious activities amount to the ever-growing number of trafficked women.

67% of those trafficked are forced into the sex trade. Of the 3.2 million sex workers in India, 1.5 million are below 15. In a country where millions of girls have been lost to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, the demand for girls — of the disposable variety, that is — is high. And, interestingly enough: according to my interviewee,  there is no specific trafficking offense listed under Indian law. Trafficking — the moving of a human being for another’s monetary gain —  is often prosecuted (if at all) as smuggling or kidnapping. Both of the latter offenses don’t readily imply exploitation, and thus lack a heartier punishment.

 Udaipur, spring 2012.

Udaipur, spring 2012.

The girls who become stuck in the trade are victims of a volatile cultural concoction: they are part of a sex-negative, highly socially-stringent system that says that women, especially those of a low social standing, are commodities to used up for what they’re worth. Victims sex trafficking in India often don’t have a way out — and if they find one, as many as 60% return to the profession because of the stigma now attached to their bodies. They unwillingly become pariahs.

Jabala is trying to help. After a brothel is raided, their organization uses a four-pronged method of getting these girls back on their feet: rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration and restoration. I could go on for ages about how inspired I was by the work that they are doing. However, for the purpose of this blog, I’ll wanted to talk about one aspect specifically: their soccer team.

How do you bring back the confidence of these girls?” ask my informant (who asked not to be named).  Here in India, it is usually incredibly hard for a girl to return to her village after being rescued from the life of sex-work: in the eyes of her community she has become marked, her body branded and tarnished. It’s for this reason (among others) that women can get pulled back in: it can be arguably easier to endure the abuse at the hands of others than to face the scorn of your own family and community. It is important, he highlighted, that these girls regained their sense of dignity and self-worth.

And that’s where the boots and balls come in.

The crux of Jabala’s sport mission is to help to foster a new, positive-body relationship.

For the over 300 girls who have passed through this program, they’ve learned the sport of soccer as a tool for trauma management.

Soccer is a popular game is rural Bengal, one of India’s poorest states. Regardless of socioeconomic status or social standing, its appeal is strong. Jabala found value in it even more-so because it’s a body contact game: here, these girls will once again learn to differentiate between good touch/bad touch. In sports, as many of us know, getting hurt is part of the process. What is unique here is that they treat this specific variety of hurt as a positive experience — a sport experience. The coaching staff was made of predominantly women, and slowly men were introduced. Using the cathartic power of sport, the girls were instructed to release their anger in a healthy manner. When given a soccer ball, they were told to draw out imaginary target on it: eyes, nose, ears, mouth. From there, they are instructed to ‘kick his nose!’ or ‘kick her ears!’ visualizing the faces of those who had abused them. And slowly, they traded in their kurtas and dupattas in favor of short-sleeve jerseys and shorts… something essentially unheard of for these small, orthodox Muslim communities.

The girls participate in league matches as well as state tourneys and practice three days a week. They’ve found support from their families and local police forces. Succeeding in their sport and gaining a broader recognition on the field brings a sense of pride to their communities. Most importantly: the girls regain their sense of self.

Over 300 girls having thus so far passed through their program with many of them staying to help rehabilitate and restore the next wave of rescued sex workers. It’s safe to say that Jabala’s program been a huge success personally — and culturally — for these girls.


They had a new site, my friend Abhi told me.

Abhi, the project coordinator for Khelo, and I had met last November during the Tag Rugby Trust tour in Bhubaneswar. I had been promising to come to Kolkata for ages (Kolkata is crazy, he always told me. Say no more, I was there.). I finally made it.

From the back of his motorcycle I watched as Kolkata roared by with its wide avenues that held running rickshaw wallahs and shards of crushed clay cups from the tea stalls on every corner. The balmy humidity was the sort that left you rubbing a film of sticky soot from your forehead and black crust from your eyes. You could smell the rot in the Ganges and the salt in the air by the port. Pooja celebrations and freshly washed yellow Ambassador cabs simultaneously made their ways down the street.

 Hanging out with the local wildlife in Kolkata.

Hanging out with the local wildlife in Kolkata.

We were greeted by goats chewing on cigarette packets and a remix of the Venga Boys’ Boom Boom Boom Boom playing on a set of loudspeakers.

I had come here with him to check out Khelo, an NGO that works in part with the Kolkata Jungle Crows rugby club. Khelo — which means play in Hindi — works in impoverished around Kolkata communities. For a few hours each week, they meet the children out on makeshift pitches for some fun and games.

“It’s about their enjoyment,” says Abhi. “You notice a change in these kids. They’ll run to you, jump on you and play with you. They girls, they used to not speak to us. They used to just stand in the corner. They used to play in separate groups. They used to not want to touch each other, but now they are tagging and tackling. They believe in themselves.”

One of their other eight sites was Brooklyn, a Muslim colony just beyond the Kolkata port known for nothing, as Abhi put it, besides its drug dealing.

One of the obstacles that Khelo faces was the unwillingness to let girls play. “She’s to old for this,” one mother told me of her daughter who has previously joined Khelo’s ranks, “she should be learning how to cook, or be studying.” When this happens Abhi and his coaching team respectfully approach the parents and implore them with the benefits of sport in the lives of their children. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I loved it. Usually when I go to these sites the kids quizzically look my way as if to say yo, this chick. wtf is on her head and WHAT is she wearing. Sometimes, I’d give say about 50% of the time, I make kids cry just by looking at them (I’m a real charmer if you haven’t noticed). But as soon as I throw a ball their way and bop around a little, their demeanor totally changes —

The grins break out and everyone plays.