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Children of sex workers denied a fair chance

Mar 09, 2010

A large number of children of sex workers drop out of secondary education embarrassed by their family situation or because of lack of funds in the famous City of Joy, Kolkata. For girls, there is the added pressure to follow their mother's footsteps to earn a living.

Kolkata: Study hard, finish education and find a job. This was 12-year-old Tanzina Khatun's focus in life. However, this cherished dream was shattered when some boys of her school found out that she lived in the red light area of Sonagachi in north Kolkata.


"Once they realised my mother was a sex worker, they started taunting me constantly. Once one of them even snatched my 'dupatta' (long stole) and said you will become like your mother, what's the point in coming to school. My mother complained to the teachers but the situation did not change. Even the teachers accused me of provoking the boys," says Tanzina, now 17. Clearly, the humiliation was still fresh in her mind.

Tanzina is one of a large number of children of sex workers who drop out of school at the secondary stage, either because they are embarrassed over their family situation or because of a lack of financial means to continue. Additionally, on the girls especially, there is the pressure to conform to the family tradition in order to earn a livelihood. Tanzina, who quit school in Class VI, is now being tutored in dance as it is seen as a saleable talent in the red light district. "I have plans to sit for my matriculation privately," she adds.

"Abuse from the outside world and poor intermingling with peers within the school and outside school hours, also make these children quit school"

The children also face the problem of a lack of space to study at home and the academically weak students are often unable to get remedial tuition because of financial constraints. Ageing mothers find it difficult to even fund the regular education costs, according to a study conducted by the Jayaprakash Institute of Social Change (JPISC). In some cases, abuse from the outside world and poor intermingling with peers within the school and outside school hours, also make these children quit school, the study found.

"Things remain fine up to the primary level as queries from young children on family backgrounds are limited. Problems arise in the Class V to VIII phase as students get more curious and have enough information to ask intrusive questions. This often leads to humiliation and a psychological inadequacy amongst children from red light areas as friends start avoiding or ostracising them once the truth comes out," says Bharati Dey, 54, Programme Director, Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, an NGO run by the sex workers in Kolkata.

The study, commissioned by UNICEF and the Women and Child and Social Welfare Department of the government of West Bengal, found that today red light areas in the city have several primary and secondary state-run schools in the vicinity, giving children of sex workers easy access to an education. School authorities too are now more sensitised to the issue. But children coming from other backgrounds don't mingle sufficiently with the kids from places like Sonagachi, according to Professor Joydev Mazumdar, Director, JPISC.

"More intermixing through recreational activities and play groups, outside school sports and cultural activities, is required to increase understanding between the children, irrespective of background," he adds.

There were 2,003 children in the 1,200 sample families of red light areas within the study. Of these, 471 never attended school, 384 stopped going to school in the pre-primary stage, 758 stopped going to school after the primary level, 377 completed secondary level, while only 13 managed to continue until the higher secondary level. It was also found that in the age group of 14-18, 101 boys dropped out of school while the dropouts amongst girls totaled 133. In the same age group, it was noticed that while eight boys never went to school, for girls the figure was much higher at 14.

"I was increasingly made to feel like an alien by other children in school. They treated me as abnormal just because I belonged to a red light area," says Loknath Bhattacharya, 20, who managed to complete his Class X but did not have the stomach to carry on after that. "I am doing my graduation privately through the Indira Gandhi Open University now. But I realise that any work place I join will create similar problems," he adds.

According to the study, the mothers are keen to give their child an education. Almost all sex workers enroll their children in school. Mothers themselves admitted 70% of the children to schools while NGOs, like CINI-ASHA and Sanlaap, helped about 27% to do so. "The school dropout rates were much higher earlier but since our Committee started functioning in the area, there has been a tremendous improvement in the situation. When we started the STD/HIV intervention programme in 1992, we realised that empowering the sex workers and their children was essential. For this labour rights and education became the two rallying points," says Dey.

"Crime seems very attractive to them as they are then not answerable to society"

Professor Mazumdar feels that money becomes a major constraint. "As the mother ages and income declines, it has as direct impact on their children's education. They drop out. The annual education expenses of a child varies from Rs 100 to Rs 2,099 (US$1=Rs 46.1) for the lower classes and Rs 2,100 to Rs 3,099 for the higher classes in government schools. Some schools also charge development fees and compel students to buy various guide books," he points out.

The study also highlighted that 75% of the mothers were single-handedly providing funds for their children's study materials, with 21% getting support from NGOs. The mother's customers, or 'babus', who sometimes father these children, remain insensitive to their needs. "This indicates the disjointed family structure that these children are subjected to, one that adversely affects their personality growth and sense of social esteem," adds Mazumdar.

"My mother could not pay my school fees, so I had to quit after Class IV," recalls Priya Ghosh, 14, who too is taking dance classes now, resigned to a future in the brothel. Sangita Kurmi, 21, managed to study till middle school but then joined the profession to make a living. Manisha Das, 14, a dropout from Class V and Payel Das, 18, a dropout from Class VIII, are also on the verge of joining their mother to help augment the decreasing household income.

The story is not too different for the boys, who end up becoming male prostitutes or pimps. "Many also turn to crime. The humiliation in school, often suffered at the delicate age of 9-10, makes them psychologically dysfunctional. They start thinking that their mothers have no respect, that they themselves have no honour or pride. Crime seems very attractive to them as they are then not answerable to society," points out Dey.

Introduction of vocational training courses for such children, particularly adolescent girls pushed into the profession by mothers looking for income, was one of the main recommendations made by the study. As the profession of the mothers, who are busy working in the evenings, affects the care of infants and minors the most, the study also recommends that Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) Centres have flexible timings and improved infrastructure like better toilets and the like. Saving schemes for adolescents and a close monitoring of school going children of sex workers are some of the other suggestions.

However, its obvious that awareness programmes for sex workers and their children aside, there is a need for society at large, including teachers, parents and children coming from so-called normal backgrounds, to become more sensitised to the issue, if the children of sex workers are to get a fair chance at education and a better life.

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