Sweet success after a life of struggle

Girls from red-light areas make a mark themselves

By Chandreyee Ghose
  • Published 7.03.18
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(From left) Juhi Khatoon, Ruchira Gupta and Soni Khatoon. Picture by Pabitra Das

Little Russel Street: Life's been a bitter struggle for 18-year-old pastry chef Soni Khatoon - for education and justice, against traffickers and early marriage. Tuesday held for her a sweet surprise when she landed a job with a city hotel, right after she had spoken about her journey in front of a select audience.

Born in Bihar's Araria district to a mother who was in the sex trade, Soni had only one dream - to study and see the world. But her family members belonging to the marginalised Nat community had other ideas.

Fighting for education and convincing her parents to send her to a government-aided boarding school was Soni's first achievement. "I made them realise that a boarding school would protect me from the volatile environment at home. I was homesick, yet I stayed on," she said. It was at this school that Soni met activist Ruchira Gupta, the president and founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide.

The young chef was speaking at a Women's Day lunch hosted by Apne Aap, an NGO that works with trafficking survivors, at Kenilworth Hotel. In the audience were 35 entrepreneurs, artistes, consul generals and celebrities.

"My father's death, violence in a red-light area, manipulative relatives - these are some of my early memories," said Soni, whose mother landed in jail soon after her father's death.

Soni's second milestone came when she walked out of home and a life of prostitution. "I took the help of Apne Aap to continue studying in another boarding school. I had to give up on my family for the sake of education," she recalled.

Ruchira remembers a 12-year-old Soni approaching her for help after an uncle tried to sell her off to a trafficker. "She was brave enough to go to the cops and file an FIR. Thanks to her effort, some traffickers were arrested," Ruchira said.

After Class X, Soni came to Calcutta to learn the baking at Kenilworth Hotel. "I want to work and study. I am already preparing for my Class XII from an open school," she said.

Sharing the stage with Soni was Juhi Khatoon, 19, who hails from the same district. A student of arts at St Xavier's College, Juhi hopes to be a lawyer one day. "My mother always wanted me to study, something she could not do herself. I hope to be a lawyer and make vulnerable women and children aware of their rights, she said.