BY VINITA BIJUR
The classroom is abuzz with energy and excitement.Students laugh loudly and make grinding sounds as they move their chairs across the floor. At the front of the class, the English teacher, Kalpana Chandavarkar, writes sentences with common grammatical structures and her class dutifully copies them down. Their bright eyes watch as she gives her daily lesson.
It was the most haphazard classroom I had ever been in. The desks were small and many, cramped into a square room with windows that lacked blinds. The midday sun streamed onto the floor, illuminating Chandavarkar as she asked her grade 9 and 10 students to bring forward the composition paragraphs she assigned the previous week.
I settled myself comfortably in a chair at the side of the classroom and watched. Ekalavya Nyasa is a school for sex worker’s children in the city of Puné, India. The organization focuses its efforts on educating and providing a safe community space for children who are constantly exposed to the horrors of prostitution and poverty. Ekalavya was started by a social worker, Renu Gavaskar, who was moved by the plight of these children and wanted to provide an opportunity for them to lead better lives. She now runs Ekalavya using donations from the locals and multinational technology companies.
A young boy approaches me shyly with his notebook in hand. He has an open face and long lashes that frame his brown eyes. As I take his notebook from him and begin reading his work, he introduces himself as Omkar. He tells me he is 12 years old and likes going to school. He is extremely curious about Canada — its geography, its progress and even its traffic and cleanliness. He tells me he wants to learn English and asks me to correct his speech, which is occasionally speckled with Hindi or Marathi words.
Renu — or Renutai, as staff and students affectionately call her — made this all happen. Seated in her office, a cozy place that facilitates many easy conversations with Ekalavya’s volunteers and children, she apologizes for the mess.
“It’s not always like this,” she says.
As she settles herself down comfortably for a long chat, she tells me, partially paraphrasing Gandhi: “We have to start with those who are most disadvantaged; we must go to the last person, the person who has nothing, especially because we are privileged, and have everything we could ask for. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is too great, and so, the haves also bear a responsibility toward the have-nots. Street workers are at the lowest rung of society’s hierarchical ladder. As a result, so are their children.”
With these words, she looks into my eyes and says, “Thisis a reality of life; you have to accept it…. It’s a process without a result.”
Part of the concern is that without an organization like Ekalavya these children will be pulled into the sex trade that surrounds them, either by choice or against their will. The National Crime Records Bureau of India identified a significant increase in the trafficking of girls in recent years. The report states that “35 cases of ‘buying of girls’ and 123 cases of ‘selling of girls’ for prostitution were reported in the country during 2006 against 28 and 50 such cases respectively in 2005.” While this shows a numerically significant increase in sex trafficking among girls, it hardly represents the total number of girls actually involved. A separate report put out by the Indian government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development put the number of female children in the sex industry at 300,000-500,000, “by conservative estimates.” Putting a number to India’s sex trade, though, is no easy task.
Nalini Andrade, a social worker with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Justice and Care, sheds some light on the issue. In her research, Andrade discovered that the number of cases reported each year is really a big question mark. This is because there are various NGOs working separately on different sex trafficking issues. When the government attempts to compile the information it often results in incomplete reports with data missing from several parts of the country. This only compounds a problem that is already difficult to categorize and pin down in terms of numbers.
A media backlash has ensued as a result of the Indian government’s lack of action to resolve the issue. Reports accuse the government of a do-nothing attitude. National publications such as The Times of India newspaper and Tehelka magazine paint India as a hub for sex tourism. Profits from the tourism industry, they argue, have incentivized Indian ministers and politicians to turn a blind eye to the enormous crime of selling children into a life of sexual slavery and abuse.
Tania Spilchen, the founder of One! International Poverty Relief Fund, remains optimistic about the role the Indian government can play in eradicating abuses against children.
“The good news is that there is awareness, and it is growing,” Spilchen says.
Spilchen, who has been teaching in the slums of Mumbai for eight years now, is betting on an initiative launched by The Times of India called “Teach India.” The program, which stands in contrast to government policies, is aimed at educating underprivileged children by encouraging upper– and middle–class citizens to become volunteer teachers.
Spilchen believes the initiative has had the profound effect of placing greater responsibility on the country’s upper class to help the impoverished. It also places an emphasis on education, which is an important piece in fighting child prostitution. There is a dire need for sex education in particular. This, Spilchen says, is a must if trafficking and prostitution are to be properly addressed.
Andrade agrees. “Sex is a big taboo in India. First there is denial of the problem, misconceptions on the issue, and then finding solutions.”
The government hasn’t been wholly unresponsive. In 1986, it amended the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA), which was a drastic improvement over previous legislation that existed for curbing prostitution.
The previous legislation “was horrifying,” Andrade wrote in an email. “It held that these girls who were engaged in prostitution were criminals … So the new ITPA now says they are victims and hold the traffickers, pimps, brothel owners as the criminals. This is a very important move and does signify that the government is showing sensitivity to the subject.”
And yet, despite the government’s gradual attempt at changing things for the better, adults and children — mainly women and girls — continue to sell their bodies to survive.
According to Renu, girls and women forced into prostitution choose not to leave it for two reasons: to maintain their livelihood and because they believe society will not accept them as anything else. Women, especially poor, uneducated women, have “no power to make decisions,” Renu said. They want freedom and economic independence, which ties them to prostitution; they believe that at least through prostitution they can support themselves without having to depend on anyone else.
Kathy Ward is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the Southern Illinois University and founder of Nari Jibon an NGO that works with disenfranchised women in Bangladesh. During her excursions to Bangladesh, where she worked with sex workers, Ward noticed a general lack of acceptance of female prostitutes in society. She cites overarching patriarchy for the perpetuation of prostitution. Coupled with this, she found that the NGOs that were there to help women seemed to want nothing to do with sex workers.
Ward thinks this hesitance could have something to do with a “gag rule” around prostitution introduced by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Bush administration. The rule requires that American NGOs work toward minimizing AIDS by condemning prostitutes and not assisting groups associated with prostitution. If an NGO refuses to comply, USAID withdraws its financial support from that organization. As a result, many NGOs have had to redefine how they operate in order to ensure continued support from USAID.
Ward provides almost all of the funding for her organization so she’s free to continue to work with women in the sex trade, but not all NGOs can be so lucky.
Another factor complicating the issues is superstition. One commonly held belief that pervades Indian society is that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of venereal disease. This practice has devastating consequences for the
girls forced to “cure” men of their ailments. Grassroots organizations
such as Ekalavya are attempting to eradicate these beliefs and are working toward providing an alternative future
for disenfranchised children. Omkar is one such child. Although not the child of a sex worker, Omkar lives in the poor neighbourhood close to the school with his parents and sibling. His father is an alcoholic who does not earn much. Omkar has lived in these conditions most his life. Now, thanks to people like Renu and places like Ekalavya Nyasa, he’ll get an education that will give him a better chance of escaping the poverty that
When I spoke with Omkar during my visit to the school, he told me about a recent documentary he watched with
his classmates. The film depicted the re-development of Japan after nuclear bombs destroyed two of their biggest
cities. It made quite an impression on him. After explaining the gist of the documentary, he began drawing a comparison
between the Indian and Japanese economies and pointed out the differences between the two countries in
terms of development and success. He concluded by stating that the primary cause of India’s stunted development
is its ever-growing population. As I listened to him speak, I realized that he was not discouraged by India’s troubles;
he was attempting to uncover and understand his country’s biggest problems so that he could have a hand in fixing
Kalpana Chandavarkar is a part-time English teacher at Ekalavya Nyasa. “[The students] are very eager to learn, very enthusiastic. They make an effort in whatever they do.” Although the classes at Ekalavya are not structured — most of the teachers are volunteers who come in at odd times — the children are ready to learn whenever the teachers are willing to teach. With Chandavarkar, they merely want to practice enough English to get by. Renu has a larger vision for her school-cum-community centre. She wishes to add grades 11 and 12 to the existing elementary and high school. Her long-term plans include a “mobile school” that will travel to distant areas, extending the reach of Ekalavya. She also envisions a boarding school with a capacity for 50 students. However, these are distant plans that will require more funding and even more volunteers — both of which are scarce. Renu sees her female students as being more vulnerable
to the forces of the sex trade than boys. There is a strong possibility that a street worker’s daughter will resort to the same kind of work. Sons are more likely to become pimps than prostitutes. The fact that prostitution has become a family business showcases the true importance of the work undertaken by Renu and other volunteers at Ekalavya Nyasa.
The roots of prostitution lie in a complex web of poverty, patriarchy, corruption and ignorance. But, there is always hope: in children like Omkar, who are ready to acknowledge and shoulder difficult responsibilities; in women like Kalpana Chandavarkar, who will help these children become tomorrow’s leaders, and in Renu, who envisions an alternative future.