Mother's Day in Kamathipura: Women here want their children to be protected from the flesh trade

A woman, clad in a green salwar-kameez, sits leaning against a wall. In her lap is a little boy who can’t possibly be more than five years old. There’s something good-humoured about her face — amused, unfazed. I’ve spotted this look before; it’s one most women who’ve passed the rite of motherhood seem to share.

When she smiles reassuringly at you, soothing away your worries, she’s hiding the sleepless nights when she’s kept vigil, ready to rush to her infant on detecting the faintest of cries. Mysterious are the ways of mothers…

Coming back to this young mother, she — along with 20 others — was part of a Mother’s Day celebration at the Khetwadi Municipal School on Grant Road, Mumbai, organised by the NGO Prerana (which works against trafficking of women and children) and the mind-reader and mentalist Mohit Rao.

Rao, a prominent name in the emerging scene of psychic entertainment, put together an awe-inspiring 30-minute show for the mothers, who are commercial sex workers from Kamathipura.

(Clockwise from above left) Mentalist Mohit rao performs at a Mother's Day celebration, organised by the NGO Prerana, for the women of Kamathipura; graffiti on a compound wall raises awareness on HIV/AIDs; the classroom where the Mother's Day event was held

(Clockwise from above left) Mentalist Mohit rao performs at a Mother's Day celebration, organised by the NGO Prerana, for the women of Kamathipura; graffiti on a compound wall raises awareness on HIV/AIDs; the classroom where the Mother's Day event was held

The personhood of commercial sex workers is usually written off in a uni-dimensional way, force-fitting them into predictable narratives. But on the afternoon, before and after they watch Rao perform, what’s evident is that they fret over the same banalities as all mothers. “Tiffin khatam kiya?”, “Aur aaj kya kiya school mein?” and other inquisitive questions that are uniquely maternal.

Many of the women who work in Kamathipura come from backgrounds of abject poverty; reports on the subject say that 80 percent of women are trafficked into the flesh trade by someone known to them. Girls as young as 12 are lured into the dragnet of traffickers, who convince their naïve families to send their daughters away for ‘jobs with a handsome income’.

A majority of the women at Kamathipura are trafficked from the interiors of Maharashtra and the state’s border with Karnataka, says Kashina Kareem Gangji, the project manager at Prerana’s Anti-Trafficking Centre.

But the numbers of migrant women are also high. According to data compiled by Prerana, there’s been an influx of Bengali speaking sex workers in Kamathipura. “The increased numbers dovetail with increased migration from Bangladesh, and migrants are particularly vulnerable to traffickers,” Priti Patkar, co-founder of Prerana, had previously told Reuters.

Of the 213 children of sex workers enrolled at Prerana’s night care centre in Kamathipura from 2010-15, 128 had a Bengali-speaking mother.

India signed an agreement with Bangladesh in 2015, to strengthen cooperation and information sharing to expedite the process of investigating and prosecuting traffickers. The agreement has made it easier to rescue and repatriate victims of trafficking as they were earlier treated as illegal immigrants and were tried in the courts on the same account. This reposes the faith in the trafficked victims from Bangladesh and other countries such as Nepal, to level charges against their traffickers. In an unprecedented scenario, last year, a Bangladeshi trafficker was convicted on the basis of a victim’s testimony given over a video link from Dhaka, where she had been repatriated after her rescue from a brothel in Mumbai.

A number of women have been known to be trafficked from the states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Apart from the much cited cause of hardship, women oftentimes fall prey to trafficking owing to cultural practices such as the Devadasi system.

The team at Prerana has been working with the vision of ending the intergenerational sex trade since 1986 by rehabilitating the children of sex workers to ensure they aren’t sucked into the labyrinth of human trafficking.

The mothers and children who were at the Grant Road School for the Mohit Rao act, are among those the organisation has extended a helping hand to. On this afternoon, they seem wholly engaged in the mentalist’s performance — gasping, giggling and flashing worried looks as he carried out some of his more outre tricks. “We thought that there was no way the bullet wouldn’t hit him,” says one mother, after one particularly nerve wracking segment.

The mothers of Kamathipura want to see their children lead healthy and safe lives away from the red light district. Their determination, along with the concerted efforts of NGOs like Prerana, to ensure that their children lead lives with positive adult outcomes is indeed laudable.

Prerana has a night care centre, an educational support programme and an institutional placement programme which allows these mothers to drop their children at a 24*7 facility that tends to their holistic development while they are at work. Kashina, the project manager at Prerana, says the long term vision of the NGO is to see the children escape the flesh trade “as informed individuals who… in turn can rescue their mothers”.

In 1992, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) recorded 50,000 sex workers in Kamathipura, a number that has gone down to 1,600 — as last recorded in 2009. The lowered numbers are a result of the increasing gentrification of Kamathipura — the flesh trade is now scattered over different areas, making it a lot more difficult for the rescue bodies to reach out to women.

Akanksha Joshi is the project head at Patched, an initiative that works towards providing an alternate means of livelihood to trafficked women in the red light areas of Mumbai. She says that while most NGOs extend counseling and medical aid to the women, “the financial aspect often gets left out”. At Patched, the emphasis is on providing women with an alternate means to sketch out a livelihood (than sex work) which could help sustain their children. Akanksha says coming up with business plans the women could be part of, would be a step forward. “They’re capable and ready to change their lives,” she says. “We just need to help them open the doors which the world locked them out of.”

Updated Date: May 14, 2017 10:23 AM

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