Red light researcher helping to set women free


Helping women working in Kolkata's red light district find better lives is the focus of Pip Rea's research


Empowering sex workers to quit India’s largest red-light district has consumed Kiwi humanitarian worker and Development Studies researcher Pip Rea for the past seven years.

She aims to share her insights on what is an ultimately heartening story – of how prostitutes from the poorest of backgrounds are making a fresh start.

She is halfway through researching a Development Studies master’s project by distance at Massey University, and says her findings on the role of resilience among prostitutes will surprise many.

The former nurse lives right in the heart of Sonagachi, the red light district of Kolkata, where an estimated 10,000 sex workers are employed. Many have been illegally trafficked as young as age 13, from surrounding West Bengal villages, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Ms Rea is the director of Tamar, a charitable non-governmental trust that works with a private company, Freeset. For the past 17 years Freeset has provided jobs, vocational training and literacy education for women who want to leave the sex trade. Tamar focuses on holistic healthcare and housing, helping sex workers with the HIV prevention and treatment, pregnancy, botched illegal abortions, as well as overcoming alcohol and drug addiction.

Ms Rea left New Zealand seven years ago at the invitation of a family friend on the board of Freeset who wanted someone to set up a healthcare programme for former sex workers employed in its Fair Trade textile operation making bags and t-shirts.

She “wasn’t super excited” about living in crowded Kolkata, population 15 million. “I like my open spaces, beaches and those kind of things.”

But after a week, she fell in love with what the people at Freeset were doing. “It made sense. It was working.”

Pip Rea's research seeks to understand the resilience of women who leave the sex trade (photo credit/Calvina Nguyen)


Women tricked and trafficked into sex trade

She agreed to set up a health programme encompassing emotional care and counselling, and building partnerships with businesses to provide alternative employment for former sex workers. She has expanded Tamar’s activities beyond its Kolkata base and is now working with villages in West Bengal and Nepal through businesses to help repatriate women back home and provide them with work.

Traffickers prey on villages of immense poverty, she says. In the most common scenario, young teen girls aged between 13 and 15 are offered employment as domestic workers then brought into the city and sold into the sex trade, which is illegal but not properly policed. “Sadly, a lot of the police are complicit and some even directly involved.”

It’s easy to assume from afar that the impact of sex trafficking – and the poverty and powerlessness that led to it – might render many women damaged beyond repair. But this is far from the truth, Ms Rea observes.

“What constantly amazes me is how these women have gone through immense trauma – being trafficked and just their life circumstances. Yet they have maintained such resilience and such a desire to leave and create a better life,” she says.

Women’s resilience outweighs trauma

That’s where the idea for her research came from. ”I wanted to understand how that happens, how women who’ve gone through so much trauma can exit and what role resilience has and how they can move from a place of no control over their circumstances to the place of making a decisions for their own welfare amongst the exploitation.

“I realised I was in a unique situation where I had a platform in academia for their voices to be heard in a way that maybe hadn’t been heard in the past,” says Rea, who works on her thesis part-time alongside 60 hours a week running Tamar. Her research to date has involved interviewing women about their lives prior to entering the sex trade as well as their experiences during and after it.

Concepts of community and solidarity are emerging to help explain the high levels of resilience she is witnessing. The effect of strong, positive family relationships early in life despite the extreme poverty of their circumstances is a factor, she suspects.

During interviews she asked women what their childhood dreams were. “Many said that ‘having a dream for your future when you’re poor is impossible.’ It's a privilege of the rich, they say.”

Her research, she hopes, will show that women who have exited the sex trade can still “lead successful lives – holding down a good job, providing for their families, changing their children’s lives and they’re doing really, really well.

“For me the cool thing is seeing it passed on. All of the women I’ve interviewed have taken other women under their wing. They often say, ‘my freedom is not fully complete until all my friends and neighbours have found freedom’”.

Part of her job involves visiting brothels and talking to women who are still in the trade, and informing them of what the alternatives are.

However the youngest girls are locked away. “We don't get access to them – we usually deal with girls aged 18 upwards.”

Pip Rea back at the Manawatū campus


Full immersion in local culture

Ms Rea’s academic exploration of a complex problem reflects her deep personal connection to the place and people. She made a point of immersing herself into the culture at the outset and can communicate with locals in Bengali, which she speaks fluently.

She did a year of full-time language study and then full immersion, living for three years in a 2X2 metre room in a house shared with other Bengali women who spoke no English, in a red light district building.

“It was hard because we didn’t have any mod cons – no fridge, shower or hot water. It was good for my language learning and for understanding of Bengali culture but it was hard work!”

“I recognised as a foreigner coming into this context there are numerous barriers to relationships and understanding the dynamics of a culture. I was the stranger. I was the different one. And I was wanting to know and understand and build relationships.”

Living among locals, she came to appreciate the more collective style of life. “The whole point was to know and understand and be a much a part of the community as I could, even though I’m an outsider.”

She grew up in multi-cultural South Auckland and spent 18 months running a health clinic in small rural village in Ethiopia when she first graduated as a nurse.

She says the greatest reward of her work is seeing the changes in women’s lives. However, entering the sex trade can lead to a swathe of health problems, such as alcohol abuse and addiction. Many young girls are given booze when first trafficked “to make them compliant. Often they find it continues to be their coping strategy and they become addicted.”

Tamar partners with rehabilitation centres and helps the women develop new coping strategies. “Every woman who comes to Freeset is assigned a case manager and a counsellor until the point that everyone in the team is confident that they are good to go.”

Trust a big issue

Most desire a better alternative, but building trust is essential and it can take six months to a year of conversations before a girl is ready to leave. Why the reluctance? “Usually the last time they trusted someone for a better alternative, they ended up in the sex trade. So trust is a really big issue for them.”

Brothel owners know about and tolerate the work of her team, which includes some who were once sex workers.

“We are part of the community. We do get into trouble from time to time, like when a young girl wants to leave and the madam doesn’t agree. They give us a hard time. ”

While the madams control day-to-day operations, “the people who are really making the money out of trafficking are not there on the ground, they’re at a distance,” Ms Rea says.

“We fit don’t fit the normal script in the way we work with women who’ve been trafficked – we’re working on the ground, through choice, through relationships, through lots of hard work, cups of tea, lots of conversations.”

Professor Regina Scheyvens, who heads Massey’s Development Studies programme, says “students like Pip who do the Master of International Development are making a significant contribution learning about effective ways of working to support positive change among poor and marginalised people around the world.”

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