By Julie Cramer
Called a “runner,” a young girl scurries through the labyrinth of streets, narrow staircases, and dingy rooms to solicit clients for her mother. If it is daytime, she can play in the brothel’s corridors with the rest of the children. If it is nighttime, however, she must lay quietly under the bed while her mother works.
Although graphic—and appalling—this is the reality for thousands of children in the Red Light District of Pune, India. But with the help of Orphan Outreach, two girls—and many others—are finding a way out.
Sheetal, 8, was on a “run” for her mother one night when a man caught her and tried to molest her. She screamed, and a man on the street came to her rescue. He took her to Santvana Children’s Home, which is run by Dr. Lalita Edwards and supported by Orphan Outreach.
Dilmaya, the second girl brought to Santvana, was 9 when her father died of AIDS and her mother abandoned her to the brothels. In a twist of fate, the brothel madam took her to the children’s home instead of recouping the losses incurred by her mother’s departure by turning Dilmaya into a prostitute.
Ironically brothel madams “send their kids to good boarding schools so that they don’t have to be in the Red Light District,” Uma Shankardas, director of programs for India, said. “But thousands of poor prostitutes who cannot afford boarding schools are forced to keep their kids with them.”
In an effort to get children like Sheetal and Dilmaya out of the Red Light District, Orphan Outreach and Dr. Edwards rented a small room in the area, hired a few dedicated staff members, and opened the Crèche. “This was a day care center where the mothers (the prostitutes) would bring their little ones so that they could be away from the places of work and they could be cared for and play with each other for a few hours between 5 and 10 p.m.” Uma said. “They were very welcoming of the idea; the Crèche gave their children five hours of peace and joy ... and a little food to go along with it.”
Underdeveloped for her age, Sheetal is thriving at Santvana Children’s Home. She tags along after Dr. Edwards, runs small errands for her, and adores the other children. Although giving her a daily bath is a battle, Sheetal likes playing dress up and eating meals with the other kids.
“I have been blessed to see Sheetal grow so well in the past few months,” Dr. Edwards said. “She is slowly getting weaned away from stealing and cussing, which were completely normal to her from the lifestyle she led in the Red Light District.”
“Dr. Edwards always has this very proud gaze when she introduces Sheetal to visitors because she is the first girl to be rescued from life in the Red Light District,” Uma said. “I am sure she will always hold a special place in Dr. Edwards’ extremely big heart.”
From Nepal, Dilmaya has learned Hindi and Marathi, a local dialect, since arriving at the group home. Soft-spoken, Dilmaya is a quick learner and knows all the English alphabet and numbers to 100.
“Once again the Lord had His hand on this little girl,” Dr. Edwards said. “Both Dilmaya and Sheetal now pray and are very happy at Santvana Home.”
When Uma learned that a brothel madam delivered Dilmaya to the home, he was struck again by one thing: “Despite the situation—which is full of suffering and hopelessness amidst the daily abuse—these women have emotions just like any of us,” he said. “I truly believe God reached out and touched this woman’s heart to bring Dilmaya to the Crèche, which led her to admittance into the group home. This woman could just have easily exploited this sweet little girl and made a lot of money. I am convinced that there is much hope and light even in this area. I am convinced that God is at work.”