Paramita believes communities living in red light areas in India continue to experience the highest rate of violence and abuse, not just because of external perceptions, but also because of internalized sights of disempowerment. By putting the local youth in charge of change, Paramita has completely stopped forced intergenerational prostitution and pimping in one of Kolkata’s major Red Light Areas.
The New Idea
Paramita Banerjee is putting children of sex workers in charge of their own lives to transform their communities to a safe space for them to grow up and live in.
Paramita has enabled the creation of eight independently run youth groups with 300 members (all of who are either children of sex workers or have one or more pimps in the family) across two major red light areas and adjacent slums that are solving the most critical issues faced by them. Together they have conceptualized and continue to lead a 24x7 watchdog system in their communities to prevent entry of underage girls into prostitution, collaborate with the police to stop abuse, resulting in an end of forced intergenerational prostitution and pimping in their areas. This process of action enables them to shift their mindsets from being victims to leaders with self-belief, enabled to lead change in their lives and communities and also make red light areas safe spaces for them to live in. The experiences in working with these youth groups have helped Paramita formulate a blueprint that takes children of sex workers in red light areas through an internal journey to find their inner strength to not accept their current marginalization and believe that they can change their own lives and the situation of their communities.
Drawing from this success, Paramita is now influencing other CSO’s and funders use her proven blueprint and put children and youth in charge of leading change. Simultaneously the self-organized and governed youth groups spread the work by building alliances with institutions in the community (like the police and also spurring youth groups in new geographies. So far, three units have used the blueprint to expand and build youth groups in red light areas and beyond. This work has earned DIKSHA, the umbrella organization with which all these youth groups work, become a member of the Child Protection Committee of Ward 83 under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
In 2007, the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of over three million female sex workers in India, with 35.47% of them entering the trade before the age of 18 years. The number of sex workers rose by 50% between 1997 and 2004, with nearly 100% of the children of sex workers also engaging in the same profession, or other illegal activities, like pimping, bootlegging and drug peddling.
There are nearly a thousand social development organizations that work in India’s Red Light Areas. They provide an array of services, from distributing free condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, to literacy skills for the children of sex workers, training in semi-skilled work like making handicrafts as alternate livelihood options. The government, too, runs several programs in these communities, like the Integrated Child Development Scheme, which provides early vaccinations and at least one nutritious meal to children aged 0-6.
However, the ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) supported study, “Vulnerability Of Children Living In the Red Light Areas Of Kolkata” shows that despite a number of organizations working in red light areas with the aim to prevent second generation prostitution, intergenerational prostitution and pimping remains at over 90%. This means 9 out of 10 children born in Red Light Areas become sex workers or pimps. Around 65% of the girls in sex work are underage, and 70% of the women who get married from Red Light Areas are underage. Reported cases of abuse in the Red Light Areas of Kolkata specifically show 50% of the children face physical and sexual abuse, but organizations working within claim 100% of the children face abuse, and a large number of cases go unreported due to police apathy.
This state of affairs can be attributed to three key reasons. First, most organizations working in red light areas are service-delivery based models that create a dependency in the community on these services. So, once these services stop due to lack of funding or an exit strategy, the community has no sustained impact. Second, the aim of the interventions is to get the adults and the children out of the community – the adults through alternate livelihoods, and the children by placing them in boarding schools far away from the community, which is believed to be necessary if they are to study and find alternate careers for themselves away from the influence of the sex trade. Some adults and children might make it out of the community through these interventions, but this vacuum is soon filled by others trafficked in, thus giving rise to a vicious cycle of abuse and disempowerment. Third, existing interventions at best make small, incremental changes in the lives of the people, especially the young, in the red light area. For example, the son of a sex worker might become a literate pimp instead of an illiterate one, or a sex worker might not contract STDs or live a longer life with AIDS because of the free medication she is given, but the essential abuse and violation of rights of both adults and children in the community remain unchanged and unchallenged.
Most importantly, such interventions also fail to recognize that the marginalization of the adults and children in red light areas is not only external (because of social taboos, and lack of access to education or healthcare) but also deeply internalized. The children in these communities lack the self-belief that they could be something other than sex workers or pimps. Unless children and communities stop seeing themselves as victims and are able to see a new role for themselves – as leaders and change their community, no sustained change can take place.
Paramita’s experiences of working with children of sex workers convinced her of the urgent need to create a self-directed process of reaching their full potential. She also recognized the power of role models from within the community to have a huge multiplier effect on impact and driving sustained transformation. To achieve this, she was convinced of the need organize differently. Children had to become the true and central stakeholders – in envisioning the kind of changes they want to see in their community and drive that change at their pace. She only had to create the space to support them.
It is to reflect these principles and instill leadership in the children that she co-founded DIKSHA with a group of children from one of the key red light areas in Kolkata. She then designed a five-stage process that she takes children and young adults in Red Light Areas through to transform them into changemakers, who then lead change within their communities. First, in order to initially engage the children and collectivize them, she merely opened a room in the community that she said was a safe space for them to come to and spend their time any way they wanted to. Some children would even sleep there to escape unsafe situations at home. Once the children started coming regularly and feeling safe in that space, Paramita started the second stage –casual conversations about their interests, friends’ groups and their lives to build rapport and establish a bond of mutual trust. In the third stage, the children explore their likes and dislikes about their life situation through writing, art or role plays and theater. Each group of children articulates their dislikes differently, from being physically abused at home, to being bullied at school because their mother is a sex worker; physical abuse of others like their mother or siblings which they are unable to stop. From these problem statements, the children form their own visions for the ideal communities they want to live in, again different from group to group. In this way, the children are given full ownership over the vision and strategy of engineering change in their communities. One of the most important aspects of these first three stages is the deliberate obliteration of different roles for the intervener and the beneficiaries. It is not only the children who share their personal narrative, but also the facilitator/s – so that the hierarchy between the ‘subject’ (subjected/ subjugated?) of intervention and the ‘objective’ savior is challenged. This is an important process of integration that allows trust and empathy to develop for all concerned to learn together and from each other.
In the fourth stage, Paramita empowers the children through various tools to strategize and then implement solutions to the problems that they have identified as most critical in their community. The first tool is information about child rights and their legal rights. Through interactive activities, participatory games, role plays, comics and other media that appeal to children, she ensures they understand their Child Rights, as per the charter of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The children then go back to the problems they have set out to solve, and identify which Rights are violated in each case. This, first, gives them the confidence that they were right in identifying the problems as their rights were being violated, and second, it gives them legal backing for attempting to solve the problems, as India has ratified the UNCRC Child Rights Charter, and therefore committed to protecting these rights for every Indian child. The next set of tools involves knowledge of how the legal system works and how the children can access them to protect themselves and their peers. The children are informed that they can seek help from the local Child Welfare Officer, how to file a report with the police. Given the full knowledge and use of these tools, children then strategize on how to solve their problems.
In the fifth stage of the leadership journey, the young people are coached on how to build alliances within the community (like with the local sports clubs, their schools) to aid them in solving their problems. The children have even built an unlikely alliance with brothel owners, who are incentivized to help their group as it makes the community safer and better for business. On the request of the children, Paramita simultaneously worked with the mothers of the children on their children’s rights and how they can protect their children.
The children democratically elect members from among themselves to form the Community-based Resource Team (CBRT). The members of the CBRT rotate so that all the children get a chance to lead the team. The CBRT members act as 24 X 7 watchdogs in the community to ensure the safety practices they want imposed are maintained. For example, in many communities the children decided that underage girls wouldn’t be allowed into sex work, or would not allow child marriage. Because of their wide network throughout the Red Light Area, when they found out about a young girl coming in, or a child being forced into marriage they would immediately report it to the police and Child Welfare Officer, who supported them because the children were supporting them in doing their own job. Any child facing any risk/ hazard/ violation of their rights can access one or more CBRT member/s for immediate intervention, thus leveraging the power of a human network, familiar with both the context as well as the tools to protect each other. Over time, the most active CBRT members gain experience in safeguarding the community and evolve to be Work Group members, who have direct linkage with the bodies of power like the police, local councillors, school teachers so that follow-up action can be taken as and when necessary.
After working with the first group of children for more than five years, a sixth stage emerged for Paramita to empower the children – showcasing role models. As the first group of children were successful in solving many problems in the area, like underage marriage, reducing abuse of their mothers by clients, the other children in the community saw them as role models, and were inspired to join them in solving their community’s problems. Paramita only trained one group of children herself. After that, this first group has trained their peers, then the younger children in their communities. Now they are invited as resource people by other organizations and other Red Light Area communities to train the children in leading change within their communities.
Paramita had strategized very carefully from day one to ensure DIKSHA was run in this way by the children. She never gave herself a formal position or title at DIKSHA and created the space for children to lead and make mistakes. Along with the five-stage leadership training, Paramita also trained the children in organizational skills, like maintaining accounts, writing fund-raising proposals, writing reports, organizing public annual events to showcase their work. After five years, when she was confident the children had become capable to run the organization themselves, she made herself inaccessible to them for a year to see if they were truly empowered to sustain and grow the change. She was convinced when after a year’s distance from the group she found that DIKSHA had scaled to three new communities.
Over the last 10 years, the young change makers Paramita has enabled have completely stopped intergenerational prostitution and pimping, underage sex work and abuse in one particular Red Light Area in West Bengal where the experimentation had started, because these were goals the children set for themselves. Many among that first batch of adolescents who are into their mid-twenties to early thirties today have done themselves and their communities proud. The daughter of a family sustaining themselves through illegal hooch production and sale in this red light area, along with other girls and boys whose mothers are in the sex trade, have liaised with the police to make them sensitive to and respond efficiently to cases reported by children from red light areas. Today, children from this red light area have the mobile numbers of police officers to call them whenever needed – a complete reversal of the fear, mistrust and animosity that existed before. The daughter of a woman in the sex trade has defied all her father’s attempts to push her into the flesh trade to become a Changeloomer (a fellowship for young leaders) to impress Members of the UK Parliament with the comic books she has developed with children on their bodies, on abuse and how to prevent it. One young person born male, once at risk of being forced into the sex trade for gender variant behavior and expressions, is today completing a Bachelor’s Degree and enabling children and adults alike to understand the unique issues of gender-queer children and youth. As for DIKSHA’s role in making these changes possible, these three and many others like them respond in unison: ‘DIKSHA is our own space and the journey to discover ourselves started here. Whatever we are today has happened in course of that journey for self exploration.’ They are the leaders reaching out to children in other red light areas, thereby snowballing the process once started experimentally by Paramita.
According to DIKSHA’s reports submitted to their funders, like Child Rights and You (CRY), all forms of domestic violence have been reduced by 60%. With reference to the 40% incidents that still occur, DIKSHA CBRT and Working Group members have direct access to the Child Welfare Officer at the local police station, so that they can deal with the cases promptly. Young people facing violence from family adults have been reduced by 80%. Corporal punishment and psychological humiliation in girls’ schools have been entirely stopped. The children and parents voicing that they know their rights and will not tolerate violation has contributed to a change in their mindset. There has been a 70% reduction in attempts at sexual abuse by customers coming to the Red Light Area. About 30% attempts by local men still happen, but children inevitably scream and shout and DIKSHA members are able to intervene and prevent it. In addition, a one-eighty degree change in the attitude of the women in terms of accepting it as ‘inevitable’ has now led to a situation of 100% reporting of cases of abuse.
Paramita strongly believes that empowering young change-makers in communities to define the change needed in the community and engineer it themselves, is the most effective means to sustainable social impact. Now, with the blueprint created at DIKSHA, she is working with foundation donors and corporate granters to guide their grants towards organizations which build leadership within communities, in order to generate a demand for this model of achieving social impact, and simultaneously, working with organizations to evolve their strategies from providing services to building change-makers in communities to solve their own problems, to meet the demand of the funders. By working with the entire social development value chain, she is engineering a new framework for social change.
Raised in a liberal arts academic family, Paramita was a vociferous reader of socio-political and philosophical discourses. At an early age she developed a socialist leaning and became rebellious. She ran away from classes she felt like she was not learning anything in and instead walked the city streets to get to know them intimately.
Her biggest rebellion came at the age of 19 years, when she left her upper-middle class, upper caste, academic family, to go and live in a shared room in the slums of Kolkata, using a shared bathroom with the entire settlement, in order to declass herself. Living in this slum for five years, her biggest learning was that it is actually impossible to declass oneself, or claim to have given up the opportunities one’s birth has granted them and truly be equal with all. Years later, while working in the Red Light Area, she applied this realization by understanding that it didn’t matter if she wore new clothes or old faded ones, how she walked, talked, looked all betrayed that she was an outsider and would always be one, and it was therefore necessary for those who are insiders in the community to lead change within it.
In college, Paramita became an active member of the Marxist-socialist student political unit. Although still a strong believer in Marx’s philosophy of social change, Paramita voiced her concerns with members of the unit who were misinterpreting and twisting the philosophy, resulting in functioning of the unit in a way she disagreed with. For example, the party leaders tried to dictate what the women in the party should wear, that they should marry and change their surnames to their husband’s, using violence to collect donations for the party using the excuse that it’s the means to a noble end. Because of these disagreements, Paramita was expelled from the unit after five years of active involvement.
From this experience Paramita learnt that there must be flexibility in all belief systems to accommodate the individual beliefs of their members. She started formulating her own theory of change, which was not about making everyone in society equal, but providing equal opportunity to everyone to excel in the talents they possess, and enable them to exercise the leadership skills, she believes every person has within themselves.
Paramita was volunteering in several existing organizations working in Kolkata’s Red Light Areas, when she realized that issues of gender and sexuality need to be addressed specifically and urgently with adolescents in Red Light Areas, since they live in a sexually overcharged situation; face social discrimination because of their mothers’ engagement in the sex trade; and their exposure to forms of masculinity and femininity is guided by the most stereotypical of patriarchal norms. Boys learn very early that girls can be sold/used as resource; girls learn early that their bodies can be used for earning favors with adult males; and both internalize a sense of shame because of their mothers being so-called fallen women. Combined with her belief in the need to create space for individual development and integrating that with community needs, this focus on issues of gender-sexuality became her fulcrum to start an experimental program in three red light areas of Kolkata with support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Fellowship for Leadership Development. DIKSHA grew out of that journey where walls between the children she worked with and her were broken down to facilitate growing up together. It is of poetic significance that today she has become an Ashoka Fellow to lead DIKSHA to the next stage of spreading this model of community-owned and led initiatives to break down the pervasive social development model that keeps reinforcing the victim/ savior model.
In Paramita’s own words, she is not a brand-builder; she is just a mid-wife who facilitates the birth of new leaders. These leaders then build their own brands.