Milk for many over ice cream for a few

Every little bit helps, says Priti Patkar, in the struggle against trafficking and for the protection of child rights. It’s an endeavour that Prerana — the NGO founded by Ms Patkar along with her husband, Pravin — has been involved with in right earnest since 1986, initially in the grimy and grim spread of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s notorious red-light precinct, and far beyond in the years that have followed.

A topper from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, Ms Patkar has been a pioneering social worker, an educationist and a committed campaigner in a sphere where exploitation plays out over generations. But change, and radical change at that, has come about, says Ms Patkar in this interview with Christabelle Noronha, thanks to efforts that have brought together governments and civil society organisations. Excerpts:

Inter-generational child trafficking and the rights of children born to prostitutes were the principal concerns for Prerana when it was founded in 1986. What has changed for these children and their mothers in India since then?

I think there has been a radical change for many children born in red-light areas. The model that Prerana created has been replicated in other red-light areas as well, keeping in mind the needs of the children there and the local community. Children above six are in school and some complete their 10th and 12th standard exams. In many red-light areas we now see that the entire inter-generational cycle has been disrupted. 

The ground realities have also changed remarkably in terms of governmental response. Governments today are serious about wanting to support these women and children in whatever possible way. Municipal corporations are involved in ensuring that these children have seamless access to education. 

Civil society participation is much more now. There are many organisations and funding agencies who want to support safety services and education services for these children and these communities. A recent development is the government’s commitment to ensuring these women and children get their identity and official documents so they can access social security and protection schemes.

Could you tell me about the model created by Prerana?

We run a night-care centre that caters to the protection and development needs of children. We also have an education support programme that emphasises and supports every child’s right to be in school. Our maximum effort is in linking mothers and their children to public or government schools and eventually, as and when there is the requirement and the possibility, to government-aided institutions.

Our philosophy is based on securing a glass of milk for every child rather than using our limited resources to provide a cup of ice cream for a few. I am not in any way against education at the best institutions, even if it means having to go abroad. But with the limited resources we have, our focus has always been to ensure that the largest number of children and youth get a basic education.

Our third programme involves institutional placement. There are certain children in red-light areas for whom it is not safe to stay with their mothers. Also, if the mother passes away and we don’t move the child immediately, there is the possibility that somebody will pose as a parent or family and whisk the child away. And that child would be completely lost after that; we wouldn’t know how to trace her.

You cannot leave vulnerable communities invisible; they have a voice and we have to hear them.”

What about child rights in the wider context? How has India been faring and how does the country compare in terms of global standards on the issue?

When it comes to global standards, it’s all out in the public domain. However, in the last 10-15 years in India, people and the government have taken child rights seriously. Many civil society organisations are now involved in protecting children’s rights, and even corporates are lending support.

In the context of corporate backing, I can see the difference. Many of them, in the past, would come and see our work and walk away because they felt investing in such programmes ran the risk of them appearing to promote prostitution. A lot of us, very patiently, tried to educate them about how this is a human rights issue. You cannot leave vulnerable communities invisible; they have a voice and we have to hear them.

We certainly now have more robust laws. These are good enough laws and, moving forward, I think we need to create that much-needed ecosystem where we can deliver justice. Just having laws does not mean justice is delivered. We need to create the necessary infrastructure, have sufficient human resources, pay decent salaries to people in child protection, trust them and treat them with dignity. 

I remember one of my first visits to the police station at Kamathipura some three decades ago. This involved a child born to a prostitute, a young girl who had been raped. I worked with this police officer who had very good intentions. When I say good intentions, it is important to note how people normalise exploitation, how people normalise abuse and the ill-treatment of children.

When I told this officer what had happened with the girl and that we had to file a case, he said this was not rape, it was ‘grooming’.  The girl was being groomed because, eventually, she would have to work in a brothel. That was the extent to which we had normalised abuse.

These are the changes we are seeing. Are they enough?  I don’t think so. There is a lot that is going very slow or not happening. For instance, we still haven’t brought child rights onto the agenda of local politics. Child issues should be in political manifestos. This has to be intentional and investments have to be made to keep children safe.

Prostitution has always had a kind of quasi-legal sanction in India and there’s no wishing it away, as the history of human societies shows. Which way, then, do we choose as a country? Will the Nordic model — where the purchase of sex is criminalised and the prostitute is sought to be enabled — work here? 

Our current law is silent on an adult woman taking to prostitution of her own free will. I think anybody being trafficked and sold into an exploitative situation is what we need to address and eliminate completely. If there is a situation where a woman has a range of choices — for example, if she has a chance to take up any other job — and she still chose to be in the sex trade, then the state needs to ensure she is not harassed for her choice.

The problem at hand is that the sex trade is mostly reserved for women who are socially, economically and politically very vulnerable. We need to understand ‘choice’ in totality. The circumstances in which people give consent and make choices also has to be understood. In such a situation, we think the state should not legitimise sex trade or prostitution.

A Prerana team member at a motivational session for youth

Human trafficking does not seem to get much attention in India’s mainstream media. How is such trafficking different from what’s seen in other parts of the world? And is enough being done to stop it?

There is nothing that is enough but compared with earlier there is a lot happening in terms of change. Today when the police conduct raids in places like Kamathipura and Falkland Road, they don’t find children being forced into sex trade in the brothels. There is vigilance and awareness. Child welfare committees are alert about not handing over a child to a claimant, even if he or she is a biological parent.

What we need are resources to strengthen these programmes so that not a single child falls through the cracks of the safety net. Having been rescued from the sex trade, the worst scenario for the child is to be re-trafficked and re-victimised. And in the criminal justice system we need to strengthen victim and witness protection if we want justice to be delivered.

What is the link between human trafficking, child rights and all the rest with issues such as rural distress, the agrarian crisis in the country and extensive unemployment?

You will find that every time there is distress in families and communities living on the margins, their vulnerability increase. When these families and communities are in a vulnerable situation, you will find traffickers reaching out to them as messiahs. It is so easy to lure and trap children and families; these people fall prey to the false promises of traffickers.

Vulnerability is not seen and experienced only by rural populations or the urban poor. There is vulnerability and family disintegration in middle- and upper-class families too; it’s just that we don’t talk much about it. If it gets exposed, it also gets covered up quickly.

Child issues should be in political manifestos. This has to be intentional and investments have to be made to keep children safe.”

You began your work with Prerana in Kamathipura. A process of transformation, of gentrification, has been underway in the area for a while. What do you make of it?

We have seen the decline of Kamathipura as a red-light area over the last two decades. Pimps and brothel keepers have moved their business to Thane and Raigad districts. Thane has, in fact, become a hub of the sex trade. There is no visible red-light area there. The brothel keepers and pimps rent or buy houses where they keep these young girls. It’s definitely a well-oiled system.

People keep talking about these new development plans [for Kamathipura], but will the exploited women living there benefit, will they get compensation? Legally they have no proof to say that they lived here. The system is so smart they keep moving these women. They don’t keep a woman for too long in Kamathipura; she is moved to Falkland Road, to Vashi, Mulund, Bhiwandi or some such place.

I doubt if a trafficked woman in the sex trade is going to get any kind of state compensation or if there is going to be any rehabilitation package declared. Currently all efforts to support these women is happening through civil society interventions.

Your social uplift endeavours have, it appears from the outside, taken you to more than a few dark corners of human existence. What has been the effect of this on you personally and on your belief systems?

I strongly believe that more and more change is possible. I strongly believe that if people are supported and given opportunities, they work towards change, they work to realise their aspirations and dreams. Let our support not be predicated on where a person is born, to whom it was born, etc.

There is no small or big contribution; every drop counts in forming the ocean. I have come to understand that we should do whatever we can depending on the resources we have. Don’t be a bystander, but there’s no need to be harsh on yourself; you cannot do everything.

Prerana was founded by you and your husband, Pravin. How much of a help is it to have your life partner by your side in your work?

I think it’s superb because there’s no convincing required. You don’t have to convert anybody to the cause; we are both converted. Sometimes it’s difficult, though, to draw the line when you bring work home and into your personal time. That definitely affects things.

If there is a situation where a woman has a range of choices ... and she still chose to be in the sex trade, then the state needs to ensure she is not harassed for her choice.”