At GB Road: Women & children bear the brunt
Neither toilets under Swachh Bharat nor Aadhaar or welfare schemes, schooling and free rations reach these children of a lesser god
"You’re travelling in a train and at night the TT comes and asks your mother, ‘Chal rahi hai kya mere saath?” he recalls, almost choking on his words. Swiftly composing himself, he asks, “Would you ever want to travel after such an experience?”
Travelling is tough for sex workers and their children. To buy tickets they need to show an identity card and it has the infamous address of GB Road, Delhi’s infamous red-light area, stamped on it. That is generally enough for a daily dose of humiliation. His classmates, teachers, shop-keepers, neighbours, policemen who collected their hafta, would all call him (and the other children) “r***i ki aulad”. They would all derisively predict that he would become a pimp, “dalaal banoge tum”.
He’s been thrashed by the police more times than he can remember. As a child when he would play on the road on Sundays, the police would often thrash him and his friends. He has grown to resent police officials, he admits, because of how they treated the sex workers and sided with the clients whenever any misconduct or mishap was reported.
Someone he met at National School of Drama once told him “GB road pe mast mast ladkiyan rehti hain, wahan chalenge”. Shocked, Kumar did not know how to react, and was fearful of what would happen if he told them that he lived there.
Most children growing up on GB Road never come to terms with their identity. They grow to hate their mothers and be ashamed of them. They grow to treat their mothers like others, without any respect.
Unlike in the movies, there are no designated hours for sex work. It’s a 24x7 profession. While mothers work, the children either loiter on the roads, sit and play on the stairs or sleep wherever they can.
“During the day, sex workers have the option of sending children to nearby schools or ask others who are yet to receive a client to look after the children,” admits Kunal Kumar, founder of Maan Foundation. But it is easier said than done. Other children and even teachers can be cruel. Being ridiculed by them daily ensures that sex workers’ children prefer not to attend schools.
Kumar himself hid his identity and his address from his peers for as long as he could. Although there was a school within walking distance of home, he changed schools multiple times before turning to Open School.
Having children, he points out, is more challenging for sex workers. They not only lose work for several months after giving birth, they have to borrow from others. But the women still want to have children, with many having as many as eight children, he claims. Like all mothers, the sex workers too shower their children with affection and have big dreams for them. They want their children to leave the red light area behind.
A friend of Kumar’s has opened his own small shop, another has taken up photography. Kumar’s younger brother wants to join the IPS when he grows up, while there’s another child who wants to take up crafts, and someone else wants to be a doctor. Kumar, who is 21, himself wants to pursue law.
The girls, however, are particularly valued because they are meant to get into the profession and earn. “It hurts me when I see girls I played with as a child, and girls younger than me engaging in sex work for money.” A few boys too did end up becoming dalaals, once their mothers passed away, sighs Kumar.
Please do not look at sex workers as poor victims, as ‘bechari auratein’; the women don’t need anyone’s sympathy, adds Kumar, the women work very hard and make an honest living. Explaining how the women land in red light districts, he says tragedies in the family forcing women to look for an occupation is a key reason while some fall prey to ‘job offers’. “Poor people don’t receive job opportunities on email and phone calls, they trust other people or the word of mouth,” says he.
“When you’re a child, you don’t want to study, but you’re forced to be in school. When you grow up, you actually take up education as a choice…but forced into sex work by the abusers. How much of a choice do these women have,” he asks.
But these workers wouldn’t engage in any kind of sex if the client is not willing to use a condom. And while the government-aided NACO does distribute stocks of condoms near brothels, there’s need to do a lot more and teach women about birth control pills and effects on their bodies.
There are various issues that the government and society are yet to address, he points out. Most of the women don’t have Aadhaar numbers or ration cards, and those who do, have multiple errors on them. This is one of the reasons why they cannot take advantage of welfare schemes.
A major issue is the complete absence of public toilets in the area. According to Kumar, no toilet has been built even under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “There are aged and ailing women, who have to climb four sets of stairs every day to reach the washroom in their building,” says he.
There is a Mohalla Clinic in the area opened recently. But it is open for only two hours a day; and the women avoid going to the govt hospital because of the procedures, long queues and the rude behaviour they have to contend with. Nor is there any kind of health insurance that the women can avail. Several women suffer from heart diseases but can’t afford the treatment or surgery. There is dire need of a health centre which will not look down on the women but counsel them on STDs and pregnancies without judging them. Their only recourse is a local physician for abortions and other treatment.
The sex workers had a torrid time during the Covid lockdowns. There were few clients and the ones who turned up would often pay as little as Rs.60. Not having any identity card, the women failed to get food ration. Without the identity card and documentation, they couldn’t open even Jan Dhan Accounts in banks. This is why sex work needs to be recognised by the government, feels Juhi Sharma, founder of Light Up Foundation and Kumar’s mentor.
Enough documentaries and films have been made on sex workers and there is sufficient literature on them, she points out. What still needs to be done, says Sharma, is to sensitise the society and the government. They need to listen to people like Kumar and their experience. People need to overcome their prejudice and the tendency to harass and exploit the sex workers. “People think it is their right to harass sex workers even in hospitals, on trains or on the street,” quips Sharma.
There were several NGOs working on GB Road, some helping with education, some with sanitation, admits Kumar. It was a non-profit that helped him complete his school education when he turned 15 and was no more eligible to continue his schooling under the Right to Education Act (which mandates schooling for children till the age of 14). He studied at a girls’ school in Nizamuddin run by Hope Project, and spent four years building their trust that he wouldn’t misbehave with female students.
When sex work dried up during the pandemic, Kumar and a few of his friends coordinated with NGOs and arranged ration for approximately 800 families living in the area. A year later, Kumar co-founded Maan Foundation with his friend Akash.
The foundation wants to focus on healthcare, education for children of sex workers, personal hygiene, and proper documentation. Kumar’s team is trying to arrange the children’s birth certificates and Aadhaar cards made for them, both required during school admission. They have been able to get 7-8 students enrolled in schools on the basis of an affidavit from the DM’s office, using which they’ll also get the Aadhaar cards made.
Kumar however complains that none of the MLAs and very few officials he reached out to actually helped or provided any guidance.
Some people from the BJP went to GB Road during the lockdown, he recalls, to distribute ration. But after a speech and a photo-op, most of the ration disappeared with the man, leaving just enough for a handful of people, he adds with a smile.
(If you want to help Maan Foundation, you can reach out to them via their social media handles).
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)