June 21, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Shobha Warrier

Children of a lesser God

I want to be a police officer..."

"I want to be a doctor..."

"I want to be a teacher..."

"I will be a collector one day…"

Monisha, Kalpana, Gopi, Karthik and Arjun (the names of these children have been changed to protect their identity) shout loudly, trying to drown out the other's voice. Each one of them wants to be heard; each one of them wants to be the centre of attention. They are, after all, talking about their dreams.

None of these children, who are all below the age of 12, would have sounded so confident a year ago. They would not have dared to dream, even though none of them know they are children of commercial sex workers.

Kalpana, for example, does not know it was a combination of poverty and her father's waywardness that drove her mother into prostitution. She only knows her mother is a flower-seller who spends the night at a friend’s place.

Eleven-year-old Arjun does not know anything about his father; perhaps, even his mother does not know who his father is. When Arjun was just eight years old, she was arrested and awarded a long jail term. Ever since, he has been staying with an 'aunt.' For a whole year, he refused to go out of the house and stared vacantly at the bare walls. He refused to talk to anyone.

Till the Indian Community Welfare Organisation, a non-governmental organisation working with sex workers, took him under its wings as part of its Udhayam project. Progress, though, has been slow: Arjun is still withdrawn and depressed and needs a lot of encouragement in order to make eye-contact and converse.

"I think my father died before I was born. I do not know why my mother was arrested by the police. I am happy now that I am going back to school. I stood sixth in my class. My dream is to become a doctor and take care of the poor. There are a lot of poor people like me in this world. I want to take care of all of them," Arjun talked haltingly; a forlorn look still haunts his eyes.

“There is something he wants to hide from the world. It has been a year since we started working with him, but he still has not opened up fully. I am sure something has hurt him terribly. When I first met him, he would not utter a word. he has improved a great deal since then, but he still prefers to sit alone and brood,” says ICWO volunteer Felix.

ICWO, which was founded in 1994, has specialised helping commercial sex workers. Their main objective is to educate these women about STD and HIV/AIDS and empower them with knowledge.

“After having worked with sex workers for seven years, we have found it is not HIV, AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases or even the police that worries them; they are more concerned about the welfare and security of their children. Children are the worst sufferers when their mothers are in this profession. They are shunned by society and face a lot of problems from peer groups, neighbours and educational institutions. That is why, in May last year, we decided to start the Udhayam project -- it caters specifically to the children of sex workers -- with the support of ACTION AID India,” says ICWO secretary A J Hariharan.

One of the major problems these children face is not being able to pursue education due to lack of motivation and poor economic conditions. The Udhayam project's main objective, according to Hariharan, is to provide them with this basic right. It also pays particular attention to the daughters of sex workers, as the chances of their entering the profession are very high.

The project has identified 579 children in the age group of 4-15 years, of whom 274 are boys and 305, girls. Sixty-eight children of these children are drop-outs; seven have never gone to school. Since education is Udhayam's focus, ICWO has adopted a strategy called 'mentor concept in education.' The children are motivated to go to ICWO study centres called Sadhana, where there is a a mentor -- usually an educated sex worker -- who helps the children with their studies.

Although most sex workers talk passionately of guarding their children from this profession, reality paints a different picture. And, when they find themselves aging and unable to get clients, they force their children into the sex trade.

Meena's daughter, for example, has just turned turned 16. She says, “We spoilt our life, but we want to protect our children from this evil. That’s why I have kept my daughter in a hostel.”

But Hariharan says, “They may take this moral high ground in front of others but the truth is mothers themselves push their daughters into the sex trade. We want to stop that.”

If girls are forced to follow in their mothers’ footsteps, the boys become thieves or goons or pimps. ICWO hopes Udhayam will help change this disturbing pattern, says Hariharan.

Udhayam also organises regular medical camps, health check-ups, yoga and meditation classes, 'exposure visits' to nearby tourist spots, cultural and sporting events and parents’ meetings for the benefit of the children. Then there is Samarpan, an all-girl street play troupe culled from the children of sex workers. They perform street plays on child abuse, women’s empowerment, the right to education and other such topics at various places in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

Most of the sex workers tell their young children they work as 'extras' in films. “When we go out at night, we tell our children the shootings are held at night. If we have to go to jail, we tell them we have to go for an outdoor shooting. Yes, they do ask us about their fathers. We tell them their fathers are dead. But it doesn't solve all our problems,” says Lakshmi.

Hariharan concurs; many children ask him, he says, why they are in Udhayam? “We tell them their mothers are working at ICWO; that is why we are helping them. This is what we tell the residents of this area as well. Nobody knows these are the children of sex workers.”

ICWO's statistical findings show that, in Chennai alone, there are about 3,000 sex workers; in Tamil Nadu, about 90,000 women earn their bread by selling their bodies. Which is why, identifying 579 children and bringing them to the Udhayam fold is merely the tip of the iceberg. “A lot more needs to be done,” admits Hariharan. More and more children like Kalpana, Gopi and Arjun would get a better chance at Life if there were more Udhayams.

For the children at Udhayam are exuberant. But Kalpana’s enthusiasm dies down when she starts talking of her drunkard father. Then, she looks upset and angry.

"I hate my father. He beats my mother; he beats us. He beats us so hard that it hurts very badly. When he beats my mother, I also beat him and run out. Do you know why I want to become a police officer? I want to arrest him and put him in jail. He is bad. I hate men. I will never marry in my life. I want to be a police officer because my mother says the police trouble her a lot... poor woman."

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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