| KOLKATA, India
KOLKATA, India Authorities in eastern India have teamed up with prostitutes as the officials accelerate a drive against the trafficking of girls into the trade.
It is a rare display of official approval for the efforts of prostitutes in West Bengal's Sonagachhi area, one of Asia's largest red-light districts.
In the past year alone a prostitutes' organization has rescued more than 550 women and girls from brothels and from traffickers, the state's social welfare department officials said.
"The state government had no choice but to join hands with the sex workers as they seem to be doing a better job in tackling trafficking," said Samarajit Jana, an official from India's AIDS control program, which helps run the project.
Younger girls are usually helped to get back to their home village. Adults are usually given housing and job training.
"I was kidnapped and forced to entertain old men, but now all that is past as I am trying to make a new beginning in life," said Anjali, a 16-year-old girl who was rescued last month by prostitutes from one of the brothels crammed into Sonagacchi's crowded maze of alleyways.
Anjali is among hundreds of poor girls shifted to one of six new government-sponsored rescue centers across the state. They learn embroidery and sewing among other crafts.
This has been possible after the government formed an alliance last month with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya (DMSC), an organization founded in 1995 that now represents 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal.
DMSC focuses its rescue efforts on minors entering the trade and those who were deceived into joining it.
"We have realized that we are the most effective weapon against this social evil that forces minor girls into sex trade," said Bharati Dey, a former prostitute, who leads the campaign.
At least 20,000 women and girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution in India every year, the government said.
Many pass through West Bengal on their way to Mumbai, Delhi and other cities in India, as well as the United Arab Emirates, police said.
Most of these girls are from India's northeast and neighboring Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, they said.
In India, trafficking and profiting by selling a person for sex is illegal, but paying for sex with an adult prostitute is not.
India's Ministry of Women and Child Development wants to change the laws to allow police take stern action against clients, but critics have stalled the plan.
Prostitutes and groups working with them fear such a move would force the trade deeper into the shadows.
The DMSC now plans to spread its campaign across the state and elsewhere in India.
(Editing by Jonathan Allen and Jerry Norton)