Children given way out of red-light area
Evening has descended on Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district. Soni, the pretty 12-year-old daughter of a long-time sex worker, has arrived at the care centre where she has spent nearly every night since she was a toddler, while her 38-year-old mother has entertained clients
Soni and other daughters of sex workers would once have been condemned to follow their mothers’ footsteps as pimps and a lack of education gave them few other options. But the neatly groomed Soni has different ideas about her future. “I want to be a dancer but if I can’t do that, I’d like to take up a job in computers,” she says with a bright smile.
Such dreams, and the skills to realise them, are what Prerana, the charity that runs the Kamathipura night care centre has tried to nurture in the thousands of sex workers’ children who have passed through its doors since 1986.
Prerana is one of the hundreds of grassroots organisations around the world that gets support from the Global Fund for Children, which is the beneficiary of this year’s FT Seasonal Appeal.
GFC identifies groups such as Prerana that are working to improve the lives of children and gives them financial grants and the advice and mentoring needed to become viable and self-sufficient.
Prerana’s goal is very simple: to give children options they might not otherwise have.
“When we started, it was as if every girl child in the red light area was born into the sex trade, and every boy was born to be allied to the sex trade – pimping, drug peddling, and trafficking,” says Priti Patkar, who founded Prerana after graduating from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “But if you are talking about a child’s rights, it should cut across all social groups,” she says. “These kids should have a right to choose a life away from the sex trade.”
Prerana opened its first night care centre in Kamathipura in 1988 after two years of intensive talks with sex workers. Most women in the brothels were unwilling to relinquish their children, usually the only bright spot in their lives, but they were keen to protect them from prostitution and its ills.
“When we asked mothers what they wanted for their children, they all said, ‘I want them to have a life other than the hell I have gone through’,” Ms Patkar says.
In each of Prerana’s three night care centres, sex workers’ children are given dinner, a safe place to sleep while mothers work and breakfast the next morning. About 220 children regularly sleep in the centres, which are open to both girls and boys as young as two.
As girls reach adolescence, and risks of exploitation increase, Prerana social workers usually try to persuade mothers to send their daughters to full-time shelters, mostly run by other groups, outside the red-light area. The charity also works with women dying of Aids to ensure that their soon to be orphaned children are put in safe shelters, rather than kept by brothel owners or pimps.
But Prerana goes far beyond just meeting children’s immediate needs for physical sustenance and protection. Children sleeping in its night centres are offered counselling to help them cope with their experiences in the red-light district and programmes to inspire them to believe that they can escape.
Prerana ensures the children are enrolled in government schools and provides coaching each evening to help them with their homework. There are regular talks on “life skills” and guest speakers visit monthly to talk to children about different career options.
The most effective motivational speakers are Prerana’s own graduates. Of about 3,500 children who have passed through the charity’s centres over the past two decades, Ms Patkar says nearly all have normal lives, working as nurses, housekeepers in five-star hotels, or in other service industry jobs. Some have obtained college degrees, and many are married with families of their own.
Mumtaz, an 18-year-old whose mother died of Aids seven years ago, is studying at Mumbai university, hoping for a job in a bank. Her childhood memories still haunt her but she feels she is moving forward in her life.
“I never felt safe,” she recalls of her childhood. “I would feel men ogling me. But I vowed I would never talk about my past to anyone. Life is more peaceful that way.”
Much has changed in Kamathipura since Prerana began its work.
Skyrocketing property prices have prompted the razing of many decrepit brothels to make way for new apartment blocks, and the Aids epidemic has claimed the lives of many women, leaving orphans behind. But the risks to sex workers’ children remain.
“I get very scared when I have to walk down the street,” says Soni. “There are young boys, and the way they look at me, and the way their hands casually touch you, I don’t like it at all. I am just waiting to grow up, get out of here, and go to see the Statue of Liberty.”
Read more about GFC on FT.com
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.