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'Foot soldiers for our mothers

By Debolina Dutta And Oishik Sircar

Children in Kolkata's Sonagachi red-light district have formed Amra Padatik, a collective to work for the dignity of their mothers and to claim their rights as children. In this interview, AP's President Gobinda Saha and Secretary Chaitali Pal talk about the discrimination that dogs their lives and their work as young activists

What’s sex work got to do with child rights? One of the major concerns of course is ensuring that children are not trafficked into the profession. The other concern is for children who are vulnerable to sex work because their mothers are in the profession.

Children of sex workers are at the receiving end of multiple disadvantages: society forces them to inherit the stigma that is attached to the work their mothers do. These children are like all others -- they play, have fun, want to study, and have their own aspirations. But they are generally looked at only as hapless victims. Most civil society interventions work towards rescuing them from their plight. We seem to take for granted the fact that these children live in ‘hell holes’, and the only way to protect them from all ‘evil’ is to take them out of it. No civil society interventions work to create enabling conditions for these children to enjoy all the guarantees of child rights, as well as respect their mothers’ livelihood choices.

Why should a child be discriminated against just because her mother is a sex worker? Why should she hide from other friends where she stays? Why should she not be able to bring friends from school home? Why should she not be able to respect her mother’s profession when it’s her money that runs the house and takes care of her education? These and other such troubling questions haunt children of sex workers.

In 2005, when children from Kolkata’s Sonagachi red-light district got together to form their own collective, building on the kind of work that their mothers have been doing through the Durbar Mahila Samanyay Committee (DMSC), they confronted these questions unflinchingly in an attempt to work for dignity for their mothers and claim their own rights as children.

They named the collective Amra Padatik (AP), which, in Bengali, means ‘We are Foot Soldiers’, and their mission statement declares: “Our goal is to establish the rights and dignity of all marginalised people and their children through social and political change. With our involvement in this global movement, we are determined to improve the quality of life and social status of sex workers and their children.” What stands out in this declaration is the clarity with which these children have been able to respond to their lived realities, and that is what allows them to think of building bridges of solidarity with other marginalised groups.

Since its establishment, AP has attracted close to 1,000 members all of whom are children of sex workers in Kolkata and its suburbs. Recently, it partnered with DMSC to organise and co-host the All-India Entertainment Workers Conference in Kolkata. AP believes that a primary means to secure and guarantee the rights of sex workers’ children is for them to also join their mothers’ struggle.

Here we listen to AP’s 18-year-old President Gobinda Saha, and Secretary, 20-year-old Chaitali Pal’s stories as children of sex workers, founders of AP, and their present work as young activists.

Gobinda:

My mother is a sex worker from Sonagachi. She used to pay someone to take care of me, in a ‘family house’, from the time I was 6 months old. That’s where I grew up. When I was 2 years old I would visit my mother and stay with her sometimes. I remember, when clients visited her she would ask me to sit outside. Later, at the age of 5 my mother took me to Ranaghat, where I was admitted to a home for sex workers’ children. That’s where I started studying and completed Standard 4. From there I moved to another school to study further. That same year, during Durga Puja, my mother had to take me out of school because my classmates had found out that I lived in a home for sex workers’ children and they made fun of me because of that. I started staying with my mother and took admission in another school by hiding my identity. Even there my friends found out that I stayed in Sonagachi and started misbehaving with me. I had to leave that school as well, and went to stay at my maternal uncle’s house. Once again I took admission in another school by hiding my identity. At that point, my mother’s earnings were very low. She couldn’t pay my uncle for my expenses. It was here that I studied till Standard 10…

I was once interviewed on a Bengali TV channel as a sex worker’s child who had passed the Standard 10 board exams. This led to further harassment and I wasn’t given admission forms in many schools. Finally, I got admitted in Standard 11, in yet another school closer to Sonagachi. Alas, there too friends found out that I was a sex worker’s child. One day in class, when the teacher was telling us about HIV/AIDS, he mentioned that it spreads through sex workers. I couldn’t help but interrupt him and tell him that it wasn’t true -- in fact, sex workers were doing a lot of work at Sonagachi to control the spread of the disease. This, of course, didn’t go down very well with him and I was reprimanded…

Sometimes I used to feel, why does Ma need to do this work when it brings so much misery and pain to my life?... I wanted to open a factory where only sex workers would work, including my mother…

But later when I met other sex workers’ children through DMSC and discussed this, we all realised that society was to be blamed for the way we were being treated, and not our mothers. They were only trying to earn a living to support their families and children -- and there was no reason why people should think of them as ‘fallen’ women.

Through Amra Padatik we are trying to reach out to as many children of sex workers as possible -- talk to them about our experiences and unite them to fight against the stigma and disrespect that is meted out to us and our mothers, because they are sex workers. We have already got some financial support and are working hard to develop a plan of action for the next few years.

We believe that, as children, it is our responsibility to be part of our mothers’ struggle. We are our mothers’ foot soldiers who will lead their struggle from the front…

Chaitali:

As a child I used to stay with my mother -- but my house felt like a jail. My mother kept me in a separate room and told me that she used to do ‘bad’ work. I would go to school and come back home. I didn’t go out with friends because my mother always wanted me to get back home fast so that I was safe. I used to see men come and go but never understood what they came for. My mother also worked in a hotel and I hardly spent time with her. The landlord and his wife were good people and loved me a lot. I spent a lot of time with them. Once when I was around 10 years old there was some property dispute in the family, and I heard my grandmother mention that I was ‘jarok santan’ (bastard child) and so I had nothing to do with the family property. I also heard her say bad things about my mother. That’s when I started wondering, what is it that my mother does? And I started to hate it… but now that I understand everything I don’t hate it anymore…

At the age of 13 I was married off to a sex worker’s son. They lived in a ‘family house’ outside Sonagachi. This is where I came to know about sex work, drinking and all such things. It’s funny that I had no idea about all this when I used to stay with my mother. I had a very unhappy marriage and was made to do all the housework. They would always speak badly about my mother. I gave birth to a child soon after marriage and had to take care of him too. People keep talking about child trafficking into sex work, but I can tell from my personal experience that child marriage is a form of child trafficking. If only my mother’s work was not stigmatised, she wouldn’t have to worry so much about my safety and think of marriage at such an early age as the only means to my security. When the marriage became unbearable I left my in-laws and came back to stay with my mother.

I tried taking up some job. But at every place people made sexual advances. I couldn’t continue anywhere. It was then that I got involved with DMSC…

It all began when Gobinda, Mithu and I -- all children of sex workers -- were discussing how our mothers say that the work they do is not bad and that they should have their rights. We wondered what we thought as their children. That is when we realised that we should have more discussions like this… so we started talking to more children like us and felt that we had some specific problems and need to come together and form a collective to be able to address them…

In 2005 we formed Amra Padatik… Whenever sex workers’ children are in some trouble we go and help them. When Gobinda was refused an admission form after his board exam because of a TV interview where he had mentioned that he was a sex worker’s child, we supported him and made sure that he got the form… Another child was harassed by the landlord after his mother died; we went and made sure that he wasn’t evicted…

Over the next few years we are planning to start tutorials and install computers at all DMSC health clinics where children from those areas can come and meet each other… and build support groups for each other so that they don’t have to face the hardships that I, Gobinda and a lot of us have faced…

(Oishik Sircar and Debolina Dutta are human rights lawyers)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007