Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sex Workers Daughters Access Education in India

The story below was published in Global Press Institute on Oct 11- the first International Girl's Day. I was traveling and read it myself after a couple of days. So, thought of sharing it here, with a few new photos. You can also read the original article here.

The kids at Chaithanya Happy Home sing as a proud Jayamma - their guardian looks with a smile.
NEW DELHI, INDIA – Madhavi, 12, of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, is an aspiring poet.

“I love music and poetry,” she says. “When I grow up, I want to teach poetry to little children.”

But the girl’s own childhood was far from poetic. Deep scars on Madhavi’s face mark the time a dog mauled her at age 2 while she was living on the streets with her mother, who earned a living as a sex worker.

Yet Madhavi’s eyes shine as she smiles and dreams about her future.

“To be a schoolteacher and take care of so many children will be fun,” she says.

And she now has the opportunity to achieve her dreams. No longer living on the streets with her mother, she has safe shelter at Chaithanya Happy Home and studies in the fifth grade at a city school.

Chaithanya Happy Home is part of Chaithanya Mahila Mandali, India’s first nonprofit organization founded by a former sex worker, Jayamma Bandari. Between the ages of 4 and 14, the 35 girls living in the home are all daughters of commercial sex workers.

Even a decade ago, the fate for these girls was to join the same profession as their mothers once they came of age. Today, however, they are living in a safe place and are attending one of the best English-medium schools in Hyderabad, dreaming of becoming schoolteachers, engineers, doctors and revenue collectors.

The stigma and discrimination attached to female sex workers in Indian society trickles down to their daughters. To change this, nongovernmental organizations are working to secure basic rights for the girls, such as education, with the help of the 2010 Right to Education Law. But activists say more needs to be done to change age-old societal attitudes stigmatizing sex workers and their daughters and to pay for continuing education.  

In Hyderabad alone, there are more than 25,000 female sex workers, according to Chaithanya Mahila Mandali. Bandari's organization has helped 600 of them to possess valid proof of identity. But thousands of others are still unable to access free health care, to vote or to open a bank account.

More than 60 percent of the total number of sex workers in Hyderabad do not own any property and live in rented apartments, Bandari says. They do not reveal their real profession to their landlords or to their neighbors, fearing that they will be evicted and shunned.

“A normal parent will never allow his or her kids to mingle with the kid of a sex worker or keep social relations with sex workers,” Bandari says. “The sex workers, therefore, live in total social exclusion.”

This exclusion – for being sex workers and also single mothers – trickles down to their children, denying them basic rights in the past such as education.

Meeting the children was...unforgettable! They almost made me forget I was there on work.  I almost surrendered to their innocent commands like 'tell us a story' and 'sing with us' :)

Anita, a sex worker whose surname is withheld to protect her identity, is the single mother of a daughter in Mumbai, India’s most populous city. She says that 10 years ago, she took her daughter to a local school, but the authorities wouldn’t enroll her without two parents’ names. So Anita used to have to pay a man to act as her husband in order to admit her daughter into the school.

Bandari, whose ex-husband forced her into prostitution when she was a young mom with a daughter, wanted to change this for daughters of sex workers. So she founded Chaithanya Happy Home three years ago to give the girls a safe place to live and to enroll them in school.

“Education is every child’s right,” she says. “Just because their mothers do sex work doesn’t mean these children should be denied of that right. In fact, it is the main reason why they need education more than others, because it is the only way to make sure that they get to live a normal life like others.”

One 12-year-old girl who lives at Chaithanya Happy Home was dropped off there by her mother, a sex worker living with HIV who never visited her again. Her name has been withheld because she is not yet aware of her past.

Like Madhavi, she also has the desire to attain an education in order to help children like her.

“I want to be a computer engineer and earn lots of money,” she says. “Then, I want to give that money to the little children.”

In order to protect the daughters from the social exclusion faced by their mothers, they only go by their first names at school and in public, Bandari says. She further isolates them from their mothers’ professions by waiting until they are 12 to tell them about their mothers.

Despite the arrangement, Bandari says the girls are better off.

“These children come from an extremely vulnerable background,” she says. “Their mothers are living in an unhealthy environment, earning very little and are surrounded by pimps and clients who are violent in nature. If the girls live with their mothers, they might get raped or molested as minors. Also, in a few years’ time they will inevitably be initiated into sex work.”

For this little school-going girl in Chaithanya Happy Home, future will indeed be full of independence, unlike her mother

The world may not know them by the names of their own mothers, but it will also not discriminate against them, says Bandari, who has entered her own name as the parent of all 35 girls in the school’s admission registrar.

It wasn’t easy to persuade a school to admit children of sex workers, Bandari says. While some schools reasoned that parents of other children would oppose, others refused to accept them on the grounds that the children had only one parent – a mother – be it the girls’ own mothers or Bandari.

Jaya Singh Thomas, projects manager of Chaithanya Mahila Mandali and a mentor to Bandari, recounts additional obstacles.

“None of these children had a birth certificate, as their mothers delivered at home,” he says. “We appealed to the schools to consider this and accept the children without a valid birth certificate.

Thomas, a social activist who has worked for the welfare of sex workers for more than two decades, says they succeeded.

“They were very understanding and entered in the register the information we provided,” he says. “We are also happy the way the school treats these children. There is total equality in their attitude.”

Today, thanks to Right to Education, all children ages 6 to 14 have a right to education. The law, in effect since April 2010, has made elementary education compulsory and free in any government school. This has encouraged more sex workers to enroll their children in local schools.
Nongovernmental organizations continue to support this effort.

As a result, the number of daughters of sex workers attending school is increasing across India, Bandari says. Though a comprehensive survey doesn’t yet exist, Bandari estimates that with hers and the support of 18 other nongovernmental organizations devoted to children’s education, the number of sex workers’ daughters in school is approximately 5,000.

Learning to kick ass!

Indian Community Welfare Organisation, a Chennai-based organization that works to ensure basic rights for stigmatized communities such as sex workers, has helped to send more than 200 girls to school, says A.J. Hariharan, the founder and secretary.

But while the schools are showing more leniency and acceptance toward the children of sex workers, the society’s attitude toward them remains more or less unchanged, Hariharan says.

“Stigma and discrimination are the major problems faced by female sex workers,” he says. “This, in turn, stigmatizes their children as well.”

Sujatha, who doesn’t go by a surname, is the president of Karnataka Sex Workers Union, which fights for legal and social rights of sex workers with more than 750 members in Bangalore. Sujatha says that the fellow students of the daughters of sex workers in the union usually tease them.

“Most of our girls complain that they were told, ‘Your mother is a sex worker, so you are also going to be one.’” she says. “Where do these children learn this? We think they learn it at their own homes!”

She says this hurts the girls’ education.

“Once this teasing begins, the girls don’t want to go to the school anymore,” she says. “They want to drop out.”

Sometimes, the social stigma also leads the children to turn against their own parents.

Shyamala, whose surname she asked be withheld to protect her identity, says that she did sex work to be able to send her daughter to college. But now her daughter in college no longer wants to see her.

“I spent all my life’s savings to send her to an engineering college,” she says with tears rolling down her cheeks. “But today, she says that she is ashamed of me. She was my only reason to live. Now that is also over.”

Bandari says that to avoid such situations, it is important to talk to the children, especially about the hardship their mothers undergo.

“At Chaithanya Happy Home, we tell them that their mothers are working very hard and facing a lot of difficulties, just so their children can go to school,” she says. “We tell them that they also must love their mothers and take care of them when they are old.”

But Sujatha says that a permanent end to such a situation is possible only when the society adopts a kinder and softer attitude toward sex workers. Meanwhile, she says that school faculty and staff must be extra vigilant about stamping out any sign of discrimination against sex workers’ children.

Another challenge is funding to educate these daughters.

Bandari, Thomas and Sujatha agree that the number of sex workers’ daughters in school would increase if the government developed a scholarship program for the children. The scholarship would not only encourage more parents to send their children – especially girls – to schools, but also would help the children continue their education well after it is no longer compulsory or free, Bandari says.

Above all, it would decrease the burden on nongovernmental organizations like Chaithanya Mahila Mandali that not only send girls to a private school, but also train them in different skills such as painting, sports, martial arts and music.

“At Chaithanya Happy Home, all the girls are learning karate,” Thomas says. “It teaches them self-defense techniques and also instills in them self-confidence, which we believe is extremely important, considering where they come from. They also receive private lessons in painting and dance.”

He says that the annual education of each girl – including extracurricular activities – costs $570.

“It takes about 30,000 rupees to support the education of a single child for one year,” he says. “If you multiply this by 35, the amount is too huge for a small NGO such as ours to afford. Yet, we are carrying on because withdrawal of the children from the school is never an option.”

Learning to overcome vulnerability!

As Thomas speaks, 14-year-old Poornima, the eldest of the children in the center, gathers other children to show off some of their karate moves.

“Kiai!” she commands, as dozens of tiny hands throw punches in the air.

“I want to be a police officer someday and catch lots of thieves and bad people,” she says with smile.

Editor’s note: All the children have been interviewed in front their guardians at Chaithanya Happy Home. All photos of the children have been taken with permission from their guardians.

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