Sutirth Sahariah is a graduate in media management and journalism from the University of Stirling, UK. He writes for the London Guardian from Delhi covering human trafficking, gender violence and development issues. He has worked for the BBC, for Dutch Public Radio & TV and the NPR
Lalitha Nayak, 54-years-old, has spent half her life knocking on the doors of one brothel after another in Delhi, trying to convince mothers, who work as sex workers, to educate their children. Nayak’s shelter for children, run by the Society for Participatory Integrated Development (SPID), is located at the edge of G. B. Road, Delhi’s infamous red light area.
More than 4000 women, mostly from rural and lower caste backgrounds, live in inhuman conditions, crammed in dingy rooms of dilapidated buildings. They were brought to the city by traffickers on the pretext of good jobs and were then sold to middlemen or pimps in the area. “I first visited the area in 1988 to share information about AIDS, but was horrified to see the condition of sex workers,” Nayak recalled. “The brothel owners were subjecting them to systematic physical and mental abuse. Since I speak a number of languages, I gained the trust of the sex workers. Many young mothers requested me to do something for their children who were growing up in the brothels.”
In 1991, with some support from the government, she was able to start a day care centre with five children, aged 4-6 years, in a room for which she had to fight hard with the municipal authorities. The centre provided crèche and pre-school facilities. For the older children, funds were raised to send them to boarding schools and other shelters in different states of India. Over a thousand children from the red light area have gone through the centre in the last two decades and around 500 of them have completed college education. The centre now provides boarding facilities to 35 children. The early years weren’t easy for Nayak. The brothel owners physically attacked her as they feared she would get the girls out of the brothels and hit their livelihood. “But I was determined to bring the children into the mainstream,” Nayak said. “I couldn’t directly rescue the women, but could help indirectly by saving the children. So whenever I had information on a child, I had to adopt a strategy – in most cases it meant convincing the mother if the brothel owner wanted to take control of the child.”
Government funding for the day care centre stopped in 1993 after the inspectors reported “low attendance” by students. But Nayak suspects it was because she refused to pay a bribe to the inspectors. In fact, to cope with the growing number of children she had demanded more space from the government and had to wait ten years to get another room from the authorities. Two more rooms were given after 20 years. Nayak says that “most children are born of “illegitimate” relationships and lack basic care and protection. In the beginning my focus was on the girls as there wasn’t much money to pay the school fees for everyone. I treat both boys and girls equally but I feared leaving the girls was risky as they could easily become victims.”
Bimla, a 35-year-old mother of two daughters, was forced into prostitution by her husband, a drug addict. Her daughters were aged four and one when she arrived at the brothel.
“I was shocked to see the environment when I first came here. The brothel owner said I have to work if I wanted shelter. My husband soon passed away and I didn’t want my daughters to grow up in the brothel”, she said.
Her daughters are now attending boarding schools and doing well. Bimla is also encouraging other mothers to educate their children. “I will do everything in my power to educate my daughters so they can live with dignity in society. I have seen so much suffering in my life that I don’t want my daughters to suffer. The day my daughters stand on their own feet, I will leave this profession and spend time with them,” she says. Bimla plans to campaign for women’s education and against child marriage once her daughters complete their studies. The main problem for sex workers is the lack of alternative employment and it is also very difficult for them to rent a house.
Laxmi, 50, started working as a sex worker when she was very young, She suffered from cervical cancer 15 years back and could no longer work. With the help of an NGO, she started working as a HIV peer educator. She, however, has no place to stay and has no choice but to live in the brothel where she cooks for the brothel owner. Her monthly salary as peer educator is 1500 rupees but she hasn’t been paid in the last six months due to delay by the authorities in sanctioning the money.
“I continue to work without pay because I like what I do now. It’s disgusting what I have done all my life”, she says. Her daughter was brought to Nayak’s centre, and is now studying in the university where she aspires to be a teacher. The centre has become indispensible to Delhi’s red light area. “Our children have become something because of the centre. We look at the centre as our own”, says Laxmi.
When asked about the debate in India about legalizing prostitution, the sex workers say they are against it.
Nayak says controlling women is not a solution. “Is this the only job left for women? Is this empowerment? There is already a lot of discrimination and violence against women in India. Legalizing prostitution would mean pushing women to untold violence. In the red light area it is mostly the low caste women who are bought and sold. Why should poor women suffer? Legalizing prostitution means controlling the brothels but it doesn’t target the sex trade outside the red light area.