It was in June 1986 that human rights activist and social worker Priti Patkar began work in the red-light area of Kamathipura, Mumbai, which was then the largest sex trade centre in Asia. Her work was part of a field project for Nirmal Niketan, College of Social Work. The same year was born her NGO Prerana, which has so far given a new direction to the lives of 15,000 children of sex workers. Patkar, winner of many national and international awards, gives a first-hand account of life in a red-light district, what it means to be the child of a prostitute and how Prerana (meaning inspiration) has been helping thousands of girls and boys get out of inter-generational sex trade:
When we first visited Kamathipura, we saw innocent and defenceless children caught in a vicious cycle of exploitation generation after generation. These children were being groomed for sex trade from early years. By the time the girls were 12 or 13, they were ready to be sold while boys were recruited into allied activities like trafficking, pimping, becoming bouncers or gate boys.
This was one of my first encounters with intergenerational trafficking of children into sex trade.
Unlike many communities in South Asia, which dread the birth of a girl child and idolise sons, the birth of a girl child was celebrated in red-light areas.
In those days, the perpetrators of the sex trade had no fear of the law. Raids and rescues were hogwash, conducted by the police to maintain the facade that the law was being implemented. The intention was not to check the illegal trade of children for commercial sexual exploitation. Many Police officers did not even know that the The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 had been amended in 1986.
Born in red-light area, born for sex trade
The deeper we looked into their lives, the more we realised that every child born in the red-light area would end up in sex trade. It was necessary to protect the children born to prostituted women, focus on their future and how they could be supported. That is when Prerana was born – to break this cycle of exploitation and inter-generational trafficking.
During our interaction with children from these brothels, they would say, “I don't get food when I am hungry if my mother is with her admi or customer...I hardly get time with her, but she has all the time to sleep with strange men.”
These children complained that in the evening, they had to run errands for their mother’s customers like bringing them cigarettes, beer, food or carrying the TV and VCR from the rental shop to the brothel. (Those days, VCRs had to be rented on an hourly basis for watching movies). These children would get paid for these “services”.
But they did not go to school because other children would make fun of their mother’s profession. “I run behind taxis to get customers for my mother and other women. I then get a tip. Sometimes some men just give money to all the children; they think we are beggars,” a girl told me.
All of this was a part of their normal environment, which to an outsider, would be the most non-conducive way for a child to grow and develop. Born with the stigma of being illegitimate, these children had been shunned by society.
Children below 2 years of age, who were dependent on their mothers and did not have an older sibling to care for them, slept below the cot on which the mothers would entertain the customers. They would sleep oblivious to the noise around. We later learned that these babies were mildly drugged or intoxicated.
“This way, they don’t disturb us when the customer is around. We need to make money and can’t take the wrath of the gharwali (brothel owner),” a sex worker told me.
The older children would sleep on the pavement, where sometimes there were brawls. Their plight was compounded during monsoons. In cases where children shared the sleeping quarters with their mother, they would often see their mothers in sexual acts. There were instances where the children were made to clean and settle the rooms for business purposes at their mother's behest, while they got dressed for soliciting customers.
They also saw their mother being ill-treated by the brothel keepers, pimps, admis and other customers.
We met a handful of children who had dropped out of school. We learnt that the school also exposed them to children of “respectable” families, and they had begun to realise that they were not “socially respectable”.
If they got involved in fights or quarrels with their fellow mates they would be frequently condemned as “offspring of a prostitute”. Due to poor environmental conditions, lack of adequate nutrition, defaulting medical advice and treatment, these children also suffered from frequent illnesses like fever, cold, dysentery, diarrhea, ulcers, scabies, tuberculosis, anemia and the like.
Challenges of changing mindsets
In one of the discussions on child rights at a conference, I was asked to share my work in the red-light area and our intervention strategies. I shared our plan to start a Night Care Centre (NCC) -- a night creche for these children that could be our starting point to disrupt the intergeneration cycle of sex trade. NCC was designed to be a comprehensive programme to ensure the safety as well as their right to life, development, and participation.
It aimed at creating an enabling environment that would promote emotional and social development, cognitive and language skills, foster the culture of participation, and prepare children for future school. Once in school, we would ensure they are helped with formal education, and also physical development through constructive play.
It would also address the health needs of children including immunisation and nutrition, and seek the views of mothers and children in the NCC’s functioning.
A few of the participants had questions on my presentation.
“Weren’t we absolving prostitutes from their responsibility of child care?” someone asked.
“How appropriate is it that developmental funds are directed to provide services for women who are in the sex trade? Weren’t they in the sex trade to make easy and quick money? They can afford to send their children to boarding schools. What guarantees do we have that these children will not end up in the sex trade eventually despite the support provided?”
These were the many questions that we were faced with. For many in that room perhaps it was their first exposure to understanding the plight of these children. It was the first time for me, as a young professional, to defend the programme. I explained to them that it was the child and his/her needs which was the center of our programming, and the mother’s background did not matter.
Three-pronged strategy that changed lives
Non-discrimination was the cornerstone of the programme. I explained to them that the NCC had been designed through an interactive process, by speaking to several women in Kamathipura. The NCC was both needs-based and rights-based and addressed the three Ps - Provision, Protection and Participation. The mothers had participated in conceptualising this programme which was a safe part-time home to keep children away from the dangers of the brothel.
This was the beginning of practising a child-centric approach in our programming. Alongside, we were trying to enroll every child in school. But just putting them in school wasn't enough and we had to support them through counseling.
The ISP is designed for children whose mothers were HIV positive or cannot look after them due to any other health or legal reasons. We never looked at setting up a separate school because we didn’t want to discriminate against them further. The right to inclusion is important to break any stigma. Also, while there was a need to disconnect them from redlight areas, we never advocate breaking their relationship with mothers.
All these three strategies, along with counseling and constant support from Prerana, have helped give a new direction to the lives of 15,000 children so far, of which about 9,000 are girls.
Once you provide a strong safety net to children, all of them are able to make choices. We put them on a path to make their own choice without feeling pressured. Some of them have taken up finance, social work, sports, and even dance as a career while others have got into management, or done BSc in computer science etc. A lot of them are employed in the service sector. They have chosen a path of dignity and we have been able to break the cycle of inter-generational sex trade.