NEW DELHI, India — All that stands between Biswajit Nandi, Surajit Bhattacharya and the first step toward a better life is $3,000. But without outside help, for these two sons of Indian sex workers it might as well be a million.
About two months ago, Bhattacharya and Nandi were selected to represent the West Bengal city of Kolkata on India's soccer team at the Homeless World Cup. The annual charity event, meant to improve the lives of homeless people around the world, takes place this August in Poznan, Poland.
“I still can't believe I was selected,” 17-year-old Nandi told GlobalPost in a telephone interview.
“When the coach called me and asked if I wanted to go to Poland, I said, 'What is Poland? Where is it?' It was so exciting. My mom was so happy. It's a big opportunity. It may be the Homeless World Cup, but it's a World Cup!”
But without government support, that opportunity may be lost.
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Neither the non-profit responsible for fielding the Indian team, nor the sex workers' group that runs the hostel where the boys first learned to love the world's most popular sport can afford to pay their way to the tournament.
According to Smarajit Jana, chief adviser for the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Kolkata-based association that represents about 65,000 local sex workers, the organization needs about $3,000 to cover the costs of the trip for both boys.
It's a chance to catch a glimpse of the world outside Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata and one of the largest in Asia. But more than that, it's a chance for the boys to stand up and prove that they're not ashamed of the work their mothers did to put food in their mouths and buy their schoolbooks. It's a chance to prove that where they come from doesn't say anything about where they're going.
“Playing soccer was very difficult at first because of my family background,” Nandi said.
“Everyone knew my mother was a sex worker. People came to me and told me she was getting too old for that work, so I asked her to stop it. Now she works in an office, and I get paid to play for local neighborhood teams. If I score a goal for one team, then another recruits me to play for them.”
It's not the most lucrative career—even the top clubs in the local professional league pay their bench players only around $12,000-$15,000 a year. But as Nandi's experience shows, soccer—or football, as they call it here—is nearly as popular as India's beloved cricket in West Bengal, where the Indian Football Association was first formed in 1893. And over the years, the selection of the children of sex workers to play on state and national teams has helped reduce the stigma attached to them because of their mothers' profession.
Playing in Poland could, therefore, bring big changes for Nandi and Bhattacharya.
“I don't want money,” Nandi said. “All I'm hoping for is a nice kit: a good pair of cleats, a good uniform. Things that will give me confidence.”
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Made famous by the award-winning 2004 documentary 'Born into Brothels,' the prostitutes of Sonagachi have emerged as a potent political force over the past two decades. Joining forces with other groups, the semi-organized sex workers have shed some of prostitution's social stigma by fighting for other working women such as domestic servants and fisherwomen.
Last year, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee hosted a six-day Alternative International AIDS Festival in Kolkata in protest against a US decision not to grant visas to hundreds of sex workers wishing to attend the mainstream event in Washington DC—drawing attendees from neighboring countries like Malaysia and Myanmar.
And in the lead-up to the most recent general elections, sex workers met with some 500 would-be members of parliament to lobby for revisions to India's penal code, which they argue still essentially condemns them to a life of poverty. (Under the law, prostitution is not technically a criminal offense, but it's illegal to rent property for use by a prostitute and illegal to live on the earnings from prostitution, so most sex workers are caught in a Catch-22.)
But while politicians are all too willing to listen to 65,000-odd voters when elections are underway, they're harder to find when two boys need a few dollars to make the trip of a lifetime.
“We're trying to approach individuals who could be interested to provide some support,” said Jana. “But as yet, no government department or ministry has come forward to support us.”