Interventions at the right time can make a difference.

Interventions at the right time can make a difference.  

BY 5.30 p.m., Kolkata is getting dark. But even as offices wind down and people begin the commute back home, the bylanes of Sonagachi's red light area start to come alive. Walking down these extremely narrow streets is difficult as sex workers — standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder, soliciting customers — line both side of the lanes. At first glance, there appears to be a sameness here — the same kind of clothes, the same brazen make-up. But a closer look, beyond the artifice of clothes and cosmetics, is shattering. An inordinately large number of "women" are actually girls — just barely into their early teens.

Of an estimated 1,00,000 "women" in prostitution in Kolkata alone, 40 per cent are said to be below 18 years. India is said to have about 4,00,000 children in prostitution. With the demand for younger sex workers alarmingly high, the girl child (and increasingly, the boy too) has become a victim of sexual abuse.

Activists at two NGOs working with the children of sex workers — Prerana in Mumbai and Sanlaap in Kolkata — agree that the question most often thrown at them is: Why do the women have children when they are aware of the reality ahead? Twenty-seven-year-old Sonali who works in the red light section of Kolkata's Kalighat, provides the answer.

Sonali had a son when she was barely 16 and worked under a tyrannical brothel keeper in Sonagachi. When her child was two, she escaped and moved to Kalighat. She left her infant behind in the care of a kindly older woman in Sonagachi who promised to educate and look after the boy. Although Sonali regularly gets news of her son's progress, she has never met him since, but dreams of the day when he will be old enough to understand why his mother had to leave him. "It's quite simple," explains Prerana's Priti Patkar. "The sex worker too is a woman and has a natural desire — and, indeed, the right — to bear a child. In her grim existence, her child alone is her hope for an alternate future, her only source of a real human relationship."

Like Sonali, most want another life for their children. More than anything else, they want them to get an education and jobs, which will enable them to move away from the exploitation and violence of their current environment.

Most of these children live in brothels with their mothers. They are sent to sleep on the streets at night, lest they disturb the mother's business. Infants, who cannot be kept out at night, sleep below the bed on which the mother has to submit to her customers' demands. To stop the child from crying, it is often drugged. Many children, thus, end up as victims of long-term drugging.

Yet, even within the suffocating darkness of this grimmest of grim worlds, there has been some glimmer of hope and transformation. Organisations like Prerana and Sanlaap — and many other NGOs working with children of sex workers in other States — have shown that interventions at the right time can make a difference.

Beginning in 1991, Sanlaap's constant dialogue with the Government over five years ensured that, in 1996, the Integrated Child Development services Scheme (ICDS) centres were started for sex workers' children in the city as well. Apart from the ICDS anganwadis, Sanlaap and other organisations also have drop-in centres and safe spaces for the children where they provide educational support and vocational training. They also run shelter homes and psychosocial rehabilitation programmes for rescued children.

Nestling in the maze of Kalighat's streets is one of these anganwadis where small children gather every day to receive an education, nutritious food and basic healthcare. Fourteen-year-old, bespectacled Chumki, a student of std. IX, comes to the anganwadi to sometimes help the teacher. She talks of her own aspirations. Someday she wants to be qualified enough to get out of the locality where her mother has worked ever since she can remember. In the evenings, in Sonagachi, some 20 children, boys and girls, arrive punctually and eagerly at the tiny but clean neighbourhood "club" which doubles up as an evening study centre. Divided age-wise into two sections, a teacher helps these students with their class work and difficulties. Some of the older ones also receive vocational training to help them build another, more respectable life.

Santosh is 18 years old and is studying for his board exams. But he is also training as a commercial artist. "I want to become one of the top commercial artists of Kolkata," he says with a shy smile. "Then I can take my mother away from here and the miserable life she leads."

In Mumbai, since the late 1980s, Prerana has been educating the children and taking them out of their exploitative environment. For younger children, night cr�ches were set up in Kamathipura in 1989, at Falkland Road around 1997-98 and in the Vashi-Turbhe area in 2000.

"Back in 1986," says Patkar, "the general attitude — whether from the welfare board, the police or homes for children — was one of doing us a favour. Today there is a visible and positive change in the attitudes of people — the NGOs, the government, the bureaucracy, the police — they react positively and sympathetically to the plight of these children."

A poster in the Prerana office states that every child has the right to "survival" — through the provision of primary healthcare, adequate food, clean water and shelter; "protection" — from abuse, neglect and exploitation; and "development" in a safe environment through formal education, constructive play, advanced healthcare and the opportunity to participate in the social, economic, religious and political life of their culture, free from discrimination. For most of the children of sex workers, the situation is still one of an outright denial of all these basic rights. But organisations like Sanlaap and Prerana are showing a way out.

(The names of some of the women and children have been changed.)

This series of articles has been brought out by the Press Institute of India as a sequel to the Manual of Reporting on Human Rights in India brought out by the Press Institute with the support of the British Council and the Thomson Foundation of Britain.

Recommended for you