International Programmes Travel

Born Into Brothels: The Life of Children of Delhi’s G.B. Road

This article is a continuation of Keay Nigel Tan’s adventures along Garstin Bastion Road, a red light district in Delhi, India. You can read about his first encounter with an NGO working with sex workers along the street here.

Sleep does not come at the usual 9 or 10 pm for the children living in G.B. Road. This is when the street outside gets busy. Business starts coming in at this time every night for Delhi’s biggest and most infamous red light district that sits right in its city centre. This is the time when men looking for pleasure start streaming into the district in rickshaws, sedans or tuk tuks. The moment these potential customers get out of their vehicles and onto the street, they are swarmed by touting pimps on the ground, and catcalled by passionate prostitutes waving their handkerchiefs from the colorful balconies on the short buildings that line both sides of G.B. Road.

Because of the nature of their mothers’ work, the children usually only go to bed at two in the morning; this is when the night life at G.B. Road dies down a bit as “customers” slowly thin out. The sex workers and their children live in kothas, which means chambers, or brothels. Each kotha is given a number and is identified by it. There are around seventy to eighty kothas in G.B. Road. The smaller kothas can take in about ten to twenty sex workers, while the bigger ones can keep as many as sixty to seventy women. However, the kothas are usually too cramped for the number of people they house. It is inevitable that the children of the sex workers will witness the coming and going of the male customers; at times, even what happens in between.

Picture of sex workers looking out of the window of their kotha at midday.

The kotha is where the sex workers and their children call home; the place where they live is also the very place where the actual sex trade takes place. Due to the limited space in the kothas, the children are not shut away or protected from the sexual activity, physically or psychologically. Thus, despite their tender age, the children do have knowledge of the sex trade and the nature of their mothers’ work. Some of them might have even witnessed the sexual acts themselves, by chance or not.

Sex workers can change the kotha that they work for, though this does not happen often. One reason is that each kotha functions like one big family or community, and so it is difficult to detach oneself from the existing group network of “kinship”. Another reason is that each kotha usually offers a specific kind of woman. For instance, some kothas offer mostly northeasterners, who are usually fairer in skin color and can thus fetch a better price. It is also an open secret that the most famous/infamous kotha of G.B. Road “specialises” in virgins. This kotha is also the most expensive one. The girls of this particular kotha are either “recruited” from the countryside or from the streets of G.B. Road itself.

It is commonplace that the children of the sex workers become part of the sex trade themselves when they grow up. Girls become prostitutes and boys become pimps. For the children of the kotha owners, they will probably take over the kotha’s business, or engage in the sex trade in one way or another. It is difficult for these children to break out of this way of life that their parents have brought them into. Having been born into this trade, they are expected to accept it or just follow through with it. There are few options for a way out. Of course it would be good for the children to find employment in any line of work outside of the sex trade, but discrimination keeps the maturing youngsters from venturing out of their comfort zone of G.B. Road, the place of their birth and childhood.

The expectations that the children possess about their life are drummed into them naturally through their growing years. For most children, the most significant role models they have while growing up are the people of G.B. Road – the people who participate in the sex trade. Even from a young age, a kind of power play already exists when the children of the sex workers and the children of the kotha owner socialise. For instance, the kotha owner’s children exude a sense of superiority over the children of the sex workers, and tend to be more assertive and dominant. Every child seems to already know their place. One wonders if this kind of class and social awareness among the children comes naturally, or if the adults inculcate it?

As in other cities and societies, sex work is a heavily discriminated occupation in Delhi. The sex workers and their children of G.B. Road usually stay in G.B. Road for the most part of their life. Many women do not even leave their kothas because of safety reasons, and so their view of the outside world is limited to what they can see from the windows in their rooms or the balcony of their kotha. Their children often do not go to school, and those who do eventually skip or quit school due to the discrimination and bullying they face because of their family background. The child of the prostitute is looked down upon as much as the prostitute herself. Therefore, education opportunities are extremely limited for the children of G.B. Road. With limited access to a normal education and insufficient exposure to the world outside of G.B. Road, the children born and brought up in the kothas are sealed off from other life options, trapped in a place where monetised sex, violence and abuse prevail.

Kat-Katha, however, aspires to help the sex workers and their children break out of this vicious cycle. As a ground-up initiative, Kat-Katha offers educational opportunities directly to the sex workers and their children.

The old building that Kat-Katha resides in along G.B. Road.

At Kat-Katha, students (age 3-17) receive free formal schooling in language, science and mathematics on weekdays, and arts and crafts on the weekends. The teaching staff consists of full-time, part-time and on-and-off volunteers. School usually starts at 12pm (considering that the students only go to sleep at 2am). Lunchtime is around 2-3pm. After that, lessons continue, ending at 6pm with a session of meditation and personal reflection. At the end of the school day, the students help to clean up the place before leaving. The older students take on the responsibility of sending younger students back to their kothas before returning to their own.

Picture of children doing some crafts using recycled newspaper. The colourful paintings on the walls were done by the volunteers and the children of the shelter.
Picture of children doing some crafts using recycled newspaper. The colourful paintings on the walls were done by the volunteers and the children of the shelter.

The most difficult part about teaching the students, as one teacher at Kat-Katha explained to me, is that all of them have different learning curves. The students join Kat-Katha at different ages and at different timings. Their background basic education level can differ greatly. A 17 year old can have the same English literacy of a 5 year old. Therefore it is of great challenge to gauge each student’s abilities and then monitor his or her progress over time. Moreover, attendance of the students may not always be consistent; parental objection is common. Thus the schooling and education provided at Kat-Katha is, and must be, greatly customized to the personal learning needs of the individual student, which is not an easy task for the teachers. So far, Kat-Katha has managed to lighten the burden of the issue by creating a personal academic portfolio for each student. However, this solution is not a long-term one as the process of updating is tedious and evaluation can be rather problematic.

On top of formal education, the students are also taught personal hygiene such as washing of hands after visiting the toilet and before meals; showering once a day; cutting of nails and etc., and manners such as courtesy when meeting people, sharing of things among themselves, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, etc. Observance of these practices by the students is monitored regularly. At the end of the school day, students will be asked to reflect upon their actions and behaviour throughout the day. Though the students are taught the good habits that they should keep, it may be difficult for some of them to observe all the suggested practices due to the lack of resources, such as proper sanitation or clean clothes, or the lack of parental support and supervision. Children can go for days without a shower.

Picture of a volunteer leading us to the children’s play area.
Picture of a volunteer leading us to the children’s play area.

Choice is a very powerful thing.  For those who have it, it is up to them to choose if they want to devote their time and energy into helping those who don’t – those trapped in their choiceless life. Kat-Katha, for one, strives to empower the children of G.B. Road through education, in good faith that they may find an alternative route to the life ahead of them. On top of providing proper schooling, I think what Kat-Katha really aims to achieve is to offer the children Choice; or at least, make them believe that they can have one if they are willing to work for it.

Children living in G.B. Road do not enjoy what we call a “normal” childhood because of the environment that they live in – right in the midst of the sex trade, the chaos, the noise, and the violence that happens on the streets or behind closed curtains. They did not choose to be; they were simply born into it. Thankfully there are NGOs such as Kat-Katha that provide a place of shelter with facilities and resources for them. Kat-Katha is a safe haven for the sex workers’ children to detach themselves from the red light district and its dealings, albeit temporarily, and enter into an alternative space where they can receive free education in a conducive environment for them to play and learn, and to receive knowledge and guidance from passionate volunteers who can lead by example. Without Kat-Katha, the children will be confined to the four walls of their kothas, shut in, or be roaming the lanes and streets of G.B. Road, idle, aimless and without a sense of purpose to life. With the children spending their days in Kat-Katha, at least the possibility of them running into trouble on the streets is much lower.

Picture of volunteers and children gathered together for a sing-a-long session.
Picture of volunteers and children gathered together for a sing-a-long session.

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