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Raised in brothels: the children of Delhi's red light district

July 22, 2022
tags:#India, #sex work, #child rights, #Mental health, #education
by:Sanjana Chawla
Children living in GB Road, New Delhi’s red-light district, open up about how they deal with widespread discrimination and people’s perceptions of their mothers.

In India’s capital city New Delhi, more than 2,000 women live in tiny rooms at brothels in the infamous red-light district Garstin Bastion Road. With minimal earnings, they have long been the subject of discrimination. Now, their children suffer too.

Their children are hyper-vigilant to society's perceptions, and Adam, who requested to stay anonymous, is no exception. The 20-year-old is the son of a sex worker who has been living in the district for the last 35 years. 

"Children fail to accept themselves and who they are, and in a way give up on their identity," Adam told FairPlanet. He said they have become susceptible to bullying and name calling in their neighbourhoods as "a sex worker’s son."

Chetna Luthra, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist and therapist, says that in India a person’s family and community play the most significant role in shaping their life. Luthra points out that for children of sex workers, factors such as family, experiences, environment, culture, learning and exposure - all of which define a child's growth process, are far from ideal.

"While growing up, these children become a part of the community which already faces discrimination and suffers physical, verbal and mental abuse," she said. 

Indian society views sex workers as objects of disgrace and disgust, and often hurl the same glances towards their children. As a result, many of them hide their reality out fear of getting socially boycotted and excluded not only from society in general but at school, too. 

In addition to being mistreated and bullied both at and outside of school, children born to female sex workers are often addressed as an 'illegitimate child' or 'a prostitute’s child'. 

According to Luthra, even in today, the absence of a father’s name or being born out of wedlock constitute some the core reasons for societal rejection and disapproval.

"Children face discrimination based on their social status and the community they are born in right from the moment of their birth," she explained. "In some cases, the rejection may start from the mother herself, as in some cases such pregnancies are mostly unwanted, while in other cases the woman may not be prepared for motherhood or lacks the resources to bring up a child."

Identity as a barrier to education

"Educational institutions and our teachers would often ridicule us," Kunal, who chose to be identified by his first name only, told FairPlanet.

Kunal knows the ins and outs of GB Road since he lives there with his mother. Fearful of potential bullying should people find out about his mother's occupation, he never disclosed the true facts about their lives at school - not even to his friends and teachers.

A 2018 study conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which works under the aegis of India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, found that children of sex workers in brothels are abused and discriminated against at school by other students. The report stated that such children are often bullied and isolated because of "a prevailing fear that the children could join the profession of their parents."

The children shared that teachers who knew about their background would often discriminate against them, too, and in some cases blackmail them, believing that the children’s mothers earn a lot at their job.

Akaash, 19, was born and brought up at GB Road. He told FairPlanet that "other students or my friends at school were no different, as they would also look down upon me and talk in a cheap way."

"They would enquire about the 'rates' of girls at GB Road and if I could take them to one of the rooms," he added. "It would always make me feel very uncomfortable and disgusted."

The fear of getting exposed holds back many children and becomes a hindrance in their pursuit of education. 

Adam shared, "I could never entirely focus on academics as I would barely attend school for 2-3 days. It wasn’t my reality that I was afraid of accepting, but people’s reaction and perception of it."

Referring to his school days as a "troubling period," Kunal said, "I ended up changing six to seven schools because my identity would get exposed every time, and all of this used to bother me a lot." He shared that he would often lose his temper and get violent. "People had fun teasing again and again that my mother is a sex worker, and I would always find it difficult to maintain my peace at that moment," he recalled. "All of this kept me so occupied and distracted that I failed to perform well or get good grades." 

Kunal, Akaash and Adam are just three of several hundred children whose education and mental health are adversely affected by societal and institutional attitudes towards their family's circumstances. 

"It wasn’t my reality that I was afraid of accepting, but people’s reaction and perception of it."

A recent study found that facing discrimination in young adulthood leads to poor health later in life and is associated with poor academic performance. According to Luthra, repeated experiences of denial, rejection and discrimination in life and at educational institutions inspire feelings of shame, which further contributes to anger. 

The findings of NCPCR’s report also highlighted that children born to sex workers witness and experience depression and biases from a young age. The report states that, "These children prefer not to interact or mingle with others due to fear of discrimination and getting judged."

Men frequent this area in huge numbers, Kunal said. "The same men and echelons of the society who look down on GB Road come here in the night," he went on, adding that "it is something that is hushed and no one talks about."

According to Adam, the foremost reason behind this flawed reception of brothels, sex workers and those associated with them is the lack of open discourse about the topic. He said that in his experience, whenever someone hears the word 'sex' they get extremely uncomfortable and tend to make a fuss. Agreeing, Kunal added, "We all learn and believe whatever our parents and elders instill in us, so if they are painting a negative image in their young children’s minds, they are bound to think of us badly and call us names."

Their way out? 

Kunal claims he has come a long way in making peace with his identity. Over time, he said, he began interacting with others and building his confidence, gradually accepting himself, his reality and the community he belongs to. Today, what his mother does for a living does not bother Kunal, and GB Road for him is a "homely place."

"People here live together like a family and do their work - which is sex work. They respect each other and even the clients who visit them."

NCPCR in its report said that children born to sex workers are in need of access to quality education, rehabilitation, reintegration and residential facilities. It also introduced a two-pronged strategy under which, "Facilities should be provided to two generations - children of traditional sex workers who are currently staying with their parents, and the new generation for whom a targeted intervention is required since their early childhood."

Kunal added that "There are a lot of sex workers in the country, and here in Delhi too, so the government must do something for them. A step as small as providing pensions to sex workers and offering education to us would make a huge difference in our lives."

"People here live together like a family and do their work - which is sex work. They respect each other and even the clients who visit them."

"The right to education should be implemented if we want to work on breaking the cycle of poverty these children are caught in," Luthra said. "Education not only exposes them to a nurturing and a learning environment, but also gives them a chance to learn about their rights and duties. In schools, support should be provided in terms of meals and supplies to avoid interruptions in education."

She also suggests that guidance must be offered to help children make better decisions about their future and provide financial aid wherever required. 

"Just some efforts, sensitising of the society's attitude towards us, and a positive approach is needed to bring a smile on our faces," Kunal concluded. 

Image by Palash Jain.

Article written by:
Sanjana Chawla 2
Sanjana Chawla
Embed from Getty Images
Indian society views sex workers as objects of disgrace and disgust.
Embed from Getty Images
NCPCR reported that children born to sex workers are in need of access to quality education, rehabilitation, reintegration and residential facilities.
© Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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