“It is very clear in their minds that there is no dignity in flesh trade”
Words come easily to Raima (named changed). All of 18, she commands the right ones at will. “I like to talk,” she says. It's why she aspires to be a radio jockey. For her parent, she thoughtfully picks the term “so-called father.”
But one word does not come to her easily. It does not come at all.
It's the name of the place she grew up in and hated. Raima prefers to use ‘basti', a euphemism for Kamathipura – Mumbai's well-known red-light district.
Daughter of a commercial sex-worker, Raima was desperate to move out of the infamous area. “My best friend and I both wanted to get out. They were bad quarters. At least for me, I used to be inside a room, but in my friend's case, everything happened in her building”
Always down and out, she and her mother had to make do with black tea and vada pav. “We ate only one meal a day. Or friends would share tiffin with me at school,” she recalls.
Through the help of a friend, Raima managed to find a place at Nalasopara, a far-flung suburb. “I convinced my mother to shift. Even told her about a cleaning job in town which she has taken up.”
The past now is a distant place and a forgotten word. Raima is currently studying Arts at a college in the city. Battling opposition, scepticism and pressure to work from her mother, she chased her love for “slate and pencil.”
Helped and sponsored by the non-government organisation Prerana, Raima has a range of courses under her belt – hotel management, candle and jewellery making, dancing, glass painting. At the time of this interview, she was huddled together with her peers thrashing out a business plan as part of an informal mini-MBA programme.
Raima's determination is not unique. A number of children of commercial sex workers in Kamathipura are trying to break free of their situation to escape the fate of their mothers.
“It is very clear in their minds that there is no dignity in flesh trade. That dignity lies elsewhere,” says Priti Patkar, co-founder of Prerana, active in Kamathipura since 1986.
That attitude drove Nina (name changed) to bone up at night school and make it to class 10. At 17, her mind is made up. “I want to be a nurse. It's a childhood dream. I cannot see anyone hurt,” she declares. Going to school was an emotional journey for her.
“I encountered many obstacles in my education. My father is suffering from blood cancer. At 13 I worked as a domestic for a year. I cried so much when my schooling was interrupted. My teachers then suggested the option of night school. So, I used to do housework from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. And from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., I would be at school.”
Nina has three sisters. The oldest is studying electronic engineering and may be sent abroad for further studies by the organisation, says Nina.
According to the 2009 admission data provided by the organisation, 134 children of sex workers, a maximum number from West Bengal, have been enrolled at three of its centres in the city. Working mothers deposit their little ones, boys and girls, during work hours and nights.
“It is the mother's drive,” says Ms. Patkar, “to ensure that the child does not get the same life.” “In my 25 years I have never heard of a single mother telling us, ‘If she is not studying forget it. After all she has to join the profession.'”
“Children are [tender] like ripe bananas,” says Nagma Sheikh (name changed). “You cannot expose them to this. It stays with them and affects them. We are mothers. I say do whatever you want, but take care of the children.”
Originally from Kolkata, Ms. Sheikh has been doing sex work for 25 years. She packed off her son to boarding school when he was just two. “Apana zindagi ho gaya. Ab bache ka zindagi sudharna hai [My life is over. I have to improve my child's life],” she says.
Another mother, of three teens – two sons and one daughter, Gul Khan (name changed) is contemplating quitting her profession. A bar dancer-turned-sex worker, she is only biding her time till her daughter, now 18, gets married.
With a will to study and make a life for themselves, the children have become the motivating force for their mothers. “Moving out of the profession is a big decision. But when the women see that their children have found an alternative path, they don't find the decision too big,” Ms. Patkar said.
They are also the eyes and ears for the organisation. “We recently rescued a girl who was going to be sold from the tip-off these little ones gave us!” she says.
While most of the children of Kamathipura's resident sex workers are affiliated to Prerana, those of itinerant workers cannot be tapped.
“There are over 10 organisations working on the issue. Some take up the HIV cause. We have not left any child out, but have no access to the floating population. We are seeing a shift in the modus operandi at Kamathipura. People from outside come here as it's a popular pick-up point and go to lodges elsewhere.”
Rising rents and a buzz about redevelopment has made the community very apprehensive about the future.