SILIGURI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Not long ago, 12-year-old Seema overheard her mother, a sex worker in this city’s booming red-light district, tell a man that she would hand over her daughter to him for the right price.

Five years ago, that might have been the end of the story for a child such as Seema, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Seema lives in Khalpara, the red-light area of Siliguri, the second largest city in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

Siliguri is in the Darjeeling district and is fast emerging as an alternate Internet-technology hub to Kolkata, the state’s capital city. As the population crosses a million, and continues to quickly grow, it has emerged in the past decade as a focal point of child prostitution. Girls, many of them minors, were purchased from Siliguri and trafficked to other Indian metropolitan cities, according to a 2003 study by the Global Organisation for Life Development, a nongovernmental group based in the northeastern state of Assam. The study also found that 70 percent of the brothel-based sex workers in Siliguri were under 20 years old.

Seema and other children of sex workers acquired a guardian angel five years ago when the Indian arm of the U. K. nongovernmental group Children In Need Institute, called CINI, started an education center here just for them. Their goal: to prevent children in Khalpara from becoming second-generation pimps, prostitutes and drug peddlers.

Seema’s case came to the attention of teachers at the center after her behavior suddenly changed. The usually vivacious and curious student had become quiet and withdrawn. When the teachers coaxed the story of out her–about her mother’s plans to sell her off–they knew what they had to do.

Sex-Work Collective Helps Out

First CINI members met with Seema’s mother and tried to persuade her to change her decision. When that didn’t work they enlisted the help of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a registered collective of West Bengal sex workers to which Seema’s mother belongs. Together they managed to persuade Seema’s mother to leave her daughter as she was–acquiring an education and having a real childhood.

Instead of being sold off Seema is now pursuing classes at the center and wants to go to a mainstream school.

CINI India, based in West Bengal, has managed to send 388 children at a critical point of vulnerability to sex work–when they are between ages 12 and 17–to formal schools. It has helped to keep 80 percent of them on this track by providing evening tutoring support by community-based teachers.

Dr. Samir Chaudhuri, director of CINI India, says the initiative was started in 2005 after it conducted a study that found sex workers’ children in Khalpara faced extreme social exclusion. It was not just schools that discriminated against these children–often denying them admission–but also society that shunned them for being related to sex workers. This social exclusion stymied the chances of sex workers’ children developing a different kind of life from that of their parents.

CINI, a two-time winner of the Indian national award for child welfare, decided to do something to protect children in red-light areas from abuse and exploitation. It now runs two education centers–in Siliguri and Kolkata–for such children.

In addition to offering formal education the center provides social and psychological therapy through painting, theater and games.

It also provides pre-vocational training on making paper bags, cards, candles and pottery painting. Some of the products manufactured by the children have been sent to Life and Leaf, a fair-trade center in Darjeeling, for sale. If sales pick up, the plan is to start manufacturing on a large scale and use the proceeds to support the children’s education and medical care.

Identifying Problems Early

The community-based teachers are also trained in psycho-social care to help them identify problems faced by the children and take necessary action.

The center is open from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., matching the typical working hours of sex workers. The center–housed in a building owned by a brothel operator–offers a safe haven for a child who would otherwise not have a parent’s supervision. It also runs morning shifts for children living in nearby slums who are also vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

But it hasn’t always run this smoothly, considering the sensitivity of the issue, say staffers.

"At first it was quite difficult to persuade and convince [the sex workers] that we were there to help them," said outreach worker Laxmi Turi. "In fact, their response did bring down our morale a bit. But we didn’t give up. We were determined to succeed and encouraged them to think of giving their daughters a better future."

Bapi Devnath has been a teacher at the center from the start. Five years ago he said the children treated staffers with grave suspicion, but then the children began to blossom.

"Children of sex workers want love and attention. If we give them attention and encourage them through kind words, they become transformed," he said.

The program keeps the children’s parents closely involved by holding regular meetings for them with teachers to discuss their children’s academic needs and progress. Many parents make financial contributions to the school, which is more than given back to them through the center’s aid in the form of school fees, educational materials and uniforms.

The project also provides leadership training, including a "watch group" of adolescent peer educators who spread community awareness about the dangers of early marriage, early motherhood, trafficking, prostitution, HIV and AIDS, child abuse and violence.

Kamla, 17, a watch group member, is also the president of children’s parliament at the center.

"I owe everything to CINI," she told Women’s eNews. "I have faced a lot of problems and want to help other girls in similar situations. It will be difficult. But I will not give up or accept defeat. I want to become something in my life."

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Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India, and writes on development, gender and politics.

For more information:

Child In Need Institute (CINI):

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee: