Women in kothas dream of normal lives for their kids

It's painful for a mother to leave her kids, but is there any other option, asks a sex worker

In the brothels of GB Road, she is known as Chandni. Twenty five years after being forced into sex work, Chandni, in her mid 40s, recounts her initial years of her ordeal unflinchingly. G B Road is now “almost home”, she says.

It is only when you ask her about her children that she sounds withdrawn. After deliberating for some time, she gradually opens up.

“My four children are in a village in Ernakulam (in Kerala). I got my three daughters married… my son works on the farm. They know their mother has struggled as a domestic help for 25 years in Delhi. I had to live separately for all these years when they were growing up. But they would have lost respect for me if they knew what I do.”

Chandni came to the capital in search of work with “village friends” after her husband died. But she knew little of what would follow. The money she earned as a commercial sex worker has been used for raising her four children. But she is says this is not reason enough for them to “not hate her”.

“It is painful for a mother to leave behind her young children. But is there any other option if you do not want them to have the same life?” says Shakeera, 50, who hails from Karnataka. She was brought to the city for “work” after being abandoned by her husband. “He died a few years later,” she adds quietly.

Shakeera’s younger daughter is a student of class 12 in Bangalore. “I have put her in a hostel there. My elder daughter is married. It is not possible to gain trust once lost. So we cannot tell our children of the lives we have led.”

For several sex workers in GB Road, educating children is raising them in hometowns and away from the dark lanes of the brothels. Growing up on GB Road is “not desirable”. Children often feel stigmatised when peers from outside the community come to know of the background.

In cases where children are aware of their mother’s occupation, the women prefer to put them in hostels. Rina*, whose one daughter is working as a beautician and another is studying, says she will now put her youngest daughter in a hostel in Delhi. Women do not want to risk keeping young daughters in the red light area.

But several children do attend the nearby municipality-run school. A few attend schools run by NGOs.

“In the past we have seen cases in which the child was disconnected from the mother after moving out of GB Road. Many mothers would want their children to live away from the red light area as this will mean better opportunities for the children. This way he or she will be away from the stigma and trauma. If the child is kept somewhere else and not in GB Road he or she still needs to be in constant touch with the mother as they act as support system for each other,” says Ritu, co-founder of Kat-Katha, an NGO working for empowerment of sex workers and their children.

Parth*, 18, says he wants to face it that his mother is a sex worker. “My friends in school often bullied me saying I was a sex worker’s son.”

He left school in a rage one day when the teacher accused him of breaking a clay pot because he was a sex worker’s son. “Some boys in the class had played mischief and broken the pot. I could not believe it when the teacher said it must be me because nothing more could be expected of a sex worker’s son. Before that, I always thought highly of teachers. I stormed out of the class.”

The years that followed were “destructive”, says Parth. “I kept bad company and spent money on alcohol. The years were traumatic. I went for a vocational training but soon quit it. My circle was small and mostly comprised children growing up in GB Road.”

Now associated with Kat-Katha, Parth’s life has changed. He talks animatedly about his photography project on GB Road with an English magazine and about his dreams of being an established photographer. He teaches art and craft to younger children at the school run by the NGO in GB Road.

“I will pursue my studies through an open university. My mother was in tears when she recently saw me giving a presentation at DU’s (Delhi University) Social Work Department.”

Kat-Katha is currently engaging with 15 children. While some children come to spend time after the formal school is over for the day, a few others prefer to spend the day there from morning.

“We are planning to scale up the projects in a year. Though initially we faced resistance, now the mothers want children to come and spend time at the school. The children coming here are aware of their mothers’ profession. Besides channeling their interests, we also try to provide as much emotional support as possible,” says Ritu.

Reshma* who does not like attending a formal school, says she wants to pursue acting. “When I grow up, I will be an actress. So will be my friend,” says the 12-year-old pointing to Neha*.
The latter quickly clarifies that she likes acting but wants to be a doctor. “I never said I want to be an actress,” the nine-year-old quips. Both the children have attended workshops with the National School of Drama.

“Civil society organisations have repeatedly demanded that the government opens a residential school for young and adolescent children in GB Road itself. This should also double as an open home for day boarders. The school will not only provide quality education but also impart vocational training. In this case, the children can live in proximity to their mothers and also focus on their interest areas in a competitive space,” says Amit Kumar, country coordinator, All India Network of Sex Workers.

As mothers dream of a life beyond GB Road for their children, youngsters like Parth are confident they will respect their background once professionally established. “I will never be like my friend who severed ties with his mother after joining a multinational company. Everybody needs to accept the past.”

*These names have been changed to protect identities.

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