Keeping Girls Safe in Kolkata

Last night the girls and I sat and talked…. I felt a familiar intimacy,  as mother and her daughters.   Each evening, one of our staff takes Rani for a walk, with one of our older girls, as Rani really needs someone on each side.  On this evening, two local men followed them from our gate, met up with more young men and made the staff person very uncomfortable, and afraid one of them would grab our girl.  Meanwhile, our girl, characteristic of the cognitively impaired, lacking judgement, smiled at them broadly.    Our little group left the park and came right home with the young men following them to our gate.   “Nothing happened,” except fear, and fear is a happening.    Our talk last night was because these walks will end now.

“Mummy, I’m not worried because if someone tries to grab me, other people around will help.”  I wish I believed this.  “No, it’s not true.  Maybe they would and maybe not.”  So then I told them about Guwahati, where a woman was gangraped recently while reporters filmed and crowds watched as she cried for help.  I also told them more about our community.  When I go out on the road, I’m often referred to as, “The Mother Teresa of Our Area.”  But when we have been under attack from the goondas, when they told the girls to get me inside of they would kill me (I didn’t go) those people who likened me to Mother Teresa did not come to help.   Instead they formed a large crowd out on the road where they got reports, updates, and finally the police came…. but none of those people came to help.  They would not challenge the criminals at our gate.

The girls listened, and then one of them said poignantly, “When we were little you didn’t tell us these things, but now we are big and so you have to tell us.”  She got it right.  I talked about “bad things on the street” and each one nodded that she knew about bad things   They each had lived bad things on the street.  They did not argue.

Purba, Maggie and I had been talking recently about the lack of free movement in the girls’ lives.  They don’t go to the park because it is not safe.  They will be stared at and heckled.  It’s not just them.  Girls are not outside in the park, or rather only little girls are outside.  When I bought the house I imagined the girls playing outside our gate, running in the lane in front of us, still a few bends from the road.  But men carrying small black pouches come and go, doing the business of the area.  And the goondas of last evening stand around and stare.

As I write I hear the criticisms from many that I am too overprotective.  But I don’t know what “over” means.  I protect them because they are in danger.  They are prey.  As girls they are prey and as orphans they are prey.  I was a teenager when I was raped in New York City.  So it’s true that I will do everything in my power to protect these girls, as I did with my first two daughters in the US.  My daughters here do not yearn for freedom.  They had a lot of it and they are still recovering, still happy in the safety of Shishur Sevay.  What I would find stifling, they find comforting.

I yearn for open spaces where they can run and play.  We once went on a picnic where by afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of a riot.  We only got out alive because of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) who came to rescue us with rifles and shields and led us to safety.  I’m not ready to write more, but this is a dangerous place for girls, a very dangerous place.  It’s why I’m here,  a one person RAF trying to protect 14 orphan girls.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rosalind Forber
    Aug 21, 2012 @ 23:58:30

    One of the first things I noticed in Udaipur was that women walk places, ride their own motor scooters and cycles, and generally feel safe doing so. Girls play in the streets. Are there any neighborhoods in Kolkata with that kind of safety?


  2. joycegodwingrubbs2
    Aug 22, 2012 @ 01:38:45

    Sadly, we sponsored a girl in India for many years, from the age of five up. When she was older, and in school, still living at home, she was kidapped on her way home from school and never found. It broke our hearts, and we continued to sponsor although there was a heightened awareness how much danger these girls are in and how much more “valuable” to perpetrators they are if they are educated and can be “placed” in a “higher situation. My love for the girls, but please tell them that caution is the better decision and I know that from experienc.


    • Dr. Michelle Harrison
      Aug 22, 2012 @ 09:43:56

      Thank you both for your comments. Rosalind, I’ve never seen anyplace in Kolkata like what you describe. There may be “compounds” in which girls more more freely, but not on the street. The restrictions feed on themselves. “Girls don’t go on the street because they are not safe. Therefore the girl who does go on the street is looking for trouble or she wouldn’t be there.” When a woman from a bar was gang raped after leaving, bars were made to close earlier.

      Joyce, thank you for that terrible story. When a girl goes missing there is no system for tracking, no Amber Alerts, no computerized communications…. It was one of the first things I realized here years ago. There is no system, and no one is accountable.


  3. Dayeeta
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 17:31:09

    Hi Michelle,
    What a wonderful job you are doing. I really wish you success in everything you do. I visit Kolkata every year and am really interested in doing some work for children. Maybe you can help with some advice. How can i get in touch with you over mail?
    my blog:


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August 2012
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