India is home to over 900,000 sex workers, with rampant sex trafficking of minors. The laws that aim to prevent trafficking and sex work do little to protect sex workers and have severe repercussions on their children. Many are barred from going to school because of their mother’s profession, and the rest typically drop out because of discrimination. Without the life skills and education, boys tend to get into drugs and petty crime, and girls often join the sex-trade to earn a living.
It is in this context that Ashoka Fellow Paramita Banerjee started working with sex workers and their families in the 1980s. She founded Discovering Inner Knowledge & Sexual Health Awareness (DIKSHA) starting with a group of 16 adolescents in Kolkata’s Kalighat red-light district who came together to conduct co-ed sexual and reproductive health workshops. In the forty years since, DIKSHA has gone on to build a national model for breaking the cycle of intergenerational sex trade, with youth at the helm. Ashoka’s Meghana Parik spoke to Paramita Banerjee.
Meghana Parik: What motivated you to establish DIKSHA?
Paramita Banerjee: I was raised in a family of academics who were urban, upper-middle-class and were privileged to receive higher education. I left my home at the age of 19 to live in slums and declass myself. It was a tough journey, but it taught me very important things. I learned firsthand how the other half of society lives, and that the community itself needs to drive the change for themselves and their causes. After a short time teaching at a university after my Masters degree, I quickly realized that this was not for me. I wanted to change the paradigm that denied agency to young people. So, I started to volunteer with organizations working with women in the brothel-based sex trade in Kolkata’s red light districts. Their lives and their children’s lives show just how exploitative and discriminatory patriarchy can be.
Parik: What did you learn from those early years of volunteering?
Banerjee: First and foremost, I saw that welfare, sexual and reproductive health programs in red-light districts had very little engagement with boys and alarmingly very little engagement with the community itself. The focus was on taking the girls away and institutionalizing them in shelter homes. These young girls would be brought back to red light districts when they turned 16 (the age of majority at the time). They’d soon be married off by their mothers or elope in hopes of a better life. Within a year or two, they would either be sold off into the sex trade by their supposed husbands or partners, or be pushed into it because of domestic violence at home. Meanwhile, the boys growing up in these areas, would resort to bootlegging or drug peddling. This cycle of forced intergenerational sex trade unnerved me.
Parik: What solution did you see at the time?
Banerjee: One day, while discussing underage marriage with a group of adolescent girls, a 15-year-old girl stood up and asked, “Why do girls have to take ownership all the time? Why can’t boys refuse to marry someone under 18? Why can’t the boys refuse to take dowry?” Something clicked in my head, and I came to the realization that we must work with boys and girls together. The organization I was volunteering with found the idea of co-ed classes bizarre so I found another – Indrani Sinha’s Sanlaap – who let me try it, provided I raised my own funding. I got a MacArthur Fellowship for Leadership Development to fund this experiment and to take care of my daughters as a single mother. DIKSHA grew out of this idea that we could ensure the protection of children within red light districts through their direct participation.
Parik: What does that look like in reality?
Bannerjee: We work very deeply with communities, with young people as our agents of change, as our changemakers. We first make sure they know their rights and how to address and map violations like forced labor or sex work. They also get to select community leaders they want to be paired with as mentors – people from law enforcement, local elected representatives and teachers. This changes the way the community operates and relates to bodies of power. These changes don’t happen because of an outsider like Paramita Banerjee or an intervening organization but because young people are the ones pushing the agenda. All we do is just give them a little nudge to start thinking that they don’t have to live the life given to them, and that they can write their life script.
Parik: The law must play an important role in all of this, no? Afterall, many of these challenges stem from the fact that sex workers and their children are largely excluded from the ambit of protective laws.
Bannerjee: Yes. Most laws that deal with human rights, especially child rights and women’s rights in India are considered soft-laws. They are met with a lack of urgency and inaction from law-enforcement. What we need are regional processes that bring together names, teachers, and communities to shape the laws. Processes similar to the ones that led to the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012 and the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005. After a period of 10 years or so, the lawmakers, and the community also need to discern together what needs to change within those acts, to adapt to contemporary contexts. Strangely, when the laws are amended, this democratic process is not repeated and the decisions are taken unilaterally by the judiciary.
But laws are not enough. After the POCS Act passed, for example, we worked hard to make the legal language accessible. Today, all the young leaders associated with DIKSHA can report a POCSO case to the police. As a result, they have been able to reduce abuse incidences by half. This required sustained capacity building so young people could effectively understand the law, what they can ask for and where. That is what we need more of.
This interview was condensed and edited by Ashoka and was a part of an impact study conducted by Ashoka’s Law for All.