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Daughters of Sex Workers: The Kishori Vatika Night Shelter in India

From: Planned Parenthood's Choice Magazine, 11/22/04


The first time I encounter Kamatipura, it is from the back of a car being chauffeured by my boss's driver. Though I have heard many stories about Bombay's notorious red light district, what I see as we inch through traffic does not look very different from the rest of the city. Vendors line tightly packed lanes, selling everything from saris to sandals. Women and men rush about their daily business and entire families cook meals and sleep on the pavement that serves as their home. Similar street scenes can be found throughout Bombay.

But despite surface appearances, Kamatipura is a unique part of the city. Most of the women here are sex workers. Many young girls are, too. The shop fronts are often brothels, and it is estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the sex workers in the neighborhood are HIV positive or living with AIDS.

Thousands of people � adult women, hijaras (eunuchs), transvestites, and children � work as sex workers within the four highly condensed blocks of this neighborhood. Many come from impoverished rural areas of India or from destitute parts of Nepal and Bangladesh. Most are driven to the neighborhood by economic desperation. Some arrive after having been sold into prostitution, and a significant number are children born to sex workers already living here. But whatever their origins, life for the sex workers in Kamatipura constantly presents challenges, and rarely offers the financial security many sought when they first arrived.

As a foreign, Western woman, I am not a likely visitor to Kamatipura. I am in India developing sex education programs for Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT), an NGO (nongovernmental organization) that works with communities affected by HIV. I have come to the neighborhood to work with the Kishori Vatika night shelter for the adolescent daughters of sex workers that CCDT runs.

"We weren't successful with the women in prostitution," explains Sara D'Mello, CCDT's founder and director. "But we felt that we could break the cycle of prostitution if we worked with their daughters. And the first way to work with them was to keep them safe."

Keeping girls safe meant providing them with a secure place to sleep at night. This is a crucial issue; most sex workers in the area work out of brothels that are filled with tightly-packed beds separated by curtains. Children of the women who work out of these beds have two options each night � they can remain within the curtained partition while their mothers work, or they can wait outside on the street. Both choices are dangerous, so in 1990 CCDT set out to find a solution. Four years later, Kishori Vatika opened its doors to 50 neighborhood girls.

Unlike many NGOs that work in the area, CCDT does not try to send girls away from their homes to boarding schools. "If you send girls to boarding school they will lose their relationship with their mothers," Sara says. "When they finish school, what will they do? They come back to the neighborhood, they don't have family connections, and they still don't know how to live here without working in prostitution. We teach them how to live in their community but give them options."

One way the shelter tries to accomplish this is by encouraging girls to finish school. Sara also teaches that early marriage is not the only alternative to sex work. But with all the issues these girls have to deal with, changing their attitudes is no easy task. Sara sighs when I ask what the girls think of their mother's professions. "Our biggest challenge is to get the girls at the shelter to accept that their mothers are good people," she says. "We want them to acknowledge that a woman can work in prostitution and still be a good mother."

I don't know what to expect the first time I visit the shelter. I think the girls will be tough and hostile � scarred by what they've seen and done. But I am not greeted by angry, hardened girls; I'm welcomed instead by a group of smiling kids anxious to practice their English. The girls are dressed in blue uniforms, and show off meticulous braids tied with ribbons. They crowd around me and I am soon overwhelmed with eager salutations: "Hello, my name is Jupar," says one. "My name is Lalita," says another. I respond in the only Hindi I have learned so far, "Namaste, Jupar. Namaste, Lalita," and they giggle.

I sit on the concrete floor next to a group of girls neatly lined up to eat dal (a pur�ed lentil dish) out of metal bowls. The girls are preparing a play they wrote to present at Kishori Vatika's annual meeting for funding agencies that support the shelter. The play tells the story of two sisters who are kidnapped from their rural village and brought to the red light area to be sold into prostitution. The girls escape and turn to the police who promptly arrest the kidnapper and throw him in jail. I am quite moved, but later Sara tells me that she was surprised by the message. "I am glad the girls still have hope," she says. "That doesn't normally happen here. The police are much more likely to arrest or beat sex workers than to help them." The girls know this � they see what happens to their mothers. But they are able to ignore certain realities in favor of a more encouraging vision.

After the play, the girls are shepherded off to do chores and attend life skills education classes designed to teach them basic skills, like how to buy a train ticket, pay a bill, and access a government ration card. So, I meet with Sarita, the head social worker. We look over my sex education curriculum and discuss teaching about HIV, puberty, and "Eve teasing" � a term used to describe the sexual harassment the girls are often subjected to when they venture outside. Sarita tells me the teasing is not thwarted by the obvious youth of a girl in a school uniform. In fact, she explains, the uniform can exacerbate the situation in a neighborhood where it is assumed that the daughters of sex workers will soon be entering their mother's profession.

Sarita feels that the teasing has particularly nefarious undercurrents due to a prevalent myth that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. But she is also quick to point out that while teaching these girls how to stay safe is an amazing challenge, the shelter is experiencing a degree of success in a neighborhood where success is not often expected.

The girls I meet at Kishori Vatika have plans beyond what Kamatipura envisions for them. They speak about finishing school, delaying marriage, and leading lives not limited by their mother's situations. And if the girls who have come out of the shelter are any indication, these are all real possibilities. The name Kishori Vatika translates as "garden for girls," and though there may not be many gardens in Kamatipura, the girls here are still managing to grow.