India is home to more than 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 serious consequences for their children. Many are not allowed to go to school because of their mother’s profession, and the rest 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 began working with sex workers and their families in the 1980s. She founded Discovering Inner Knowledge and Sexual Health Awareness (DIKSHA) starting with a group of 16 adolescents in the Kalighat red light district of Kolkata who came together to conduct co-ed sexual and reproductive health workshops. In the forty years since, DIKSHA has developed a national model to break the cycle of intergenerational sex trafficking, with young people at the helm. Meghana Parik of Ashoka spoke with Paramita Banerjee.
Meghana Parik: What motivated you to found DIKSHA?
Paramita Banerjee: I grew up in a family of college graduates who were from the city, upper middle class and privileged to pursue higher education. I left my home at the age of 19 to live in slums and declassify myself. It was a tough journey, but it taught me very important things. I have learned first hand how the other half of society lives, and that the community itself must drive the change for themselves and their causes. After teaching at a university for a short time after my master’s degree, I quickly realized that this was not for me. I wanted to change the paradigm that denied young people power. So I started volunteering with organizations that work with women in the brothel-based sex trade in Kolkata’s red light districts. Their lives and that of their children show how exploitative and discriminatory patriarchy can be.
parik: What have you learned from those early years of volunteering?
banerjee: First of all, I saw that welfare programs and sexual and reproductive health programs in red light districts had very little involvement with boys and alarmingly little involvement with the community itself. The focus was on taking the girls away and locking them up in shelters. These young girls would be returned to the red light districts when they turned 16 (of age at the time). They would soon be married off by their mother or would run away in the hope of a better life. Within a year or two, they would either be sold into the sex trade by their alleged husbands or partners, or pushed into it because of domestic violence at home. Meanwhile, the boys who grew up in these areas would resort to smuggling or drug trafficking. This cycle of forced intergenerational sex trafficking made me nervous.
parik: What solution did you see then?
banerjee: One day, while talking to a group of teenage girls about underage marriage, a 15-year-old girl stood up and asked, “Why do girls have to take ownership all the time? Why can’t guys refuse to marry anyone under 18? Why can’t the boys refuse to accept a dowry?” Something clicked in my head and I came to realize that we need to work with boys and girls. The organization I volunteered for thought the idea of mixed classes was bizarre, so I found another… Indrani Sinha’s Sanlaap – who let me try, provided I raise my own funding. I was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for Leadership Development to fund this experiment and to care for my daughters as a single mother. DIKSHA was born from the idea that we could guarantee the protection of children within the red light districts through their direct participation.
parik: What does that look like in real life?
banerjee: We work very closely with communities, with young people as our agents of change, as our change makers. We first make sure that they know what their rights are and how they can tackle and map violations such as forced labor or sex work. They may also select community leaders they would like to be paired with as mentors — law enforcement officers, local elected representatives, and teachers. This changes the way the community works and relates to power bodies. These changes are not happening because of an outsider like Paramita Banerjee or an intermediate organization, but because it is young people who are on the agenda. All we do is give them a little push to start thinking that they don’t have to live the life they’ve been given, and that they can write their life script.
parik: Surely the law must play an important role in all of this? After all, many of these challenges stem from the fact that sex workers and their children are largely excluded from protection laws.
banerjee: Yes. Most laws related to human rights, especially children’s rights and women’s rights in India, are considered soft laws. They face a lack of urgency and inaction from law enforcement. What we need are regional processes that bring activists, teachers and communities together to shape the laws. Processes similar to those that led to the Child Protection Against Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO), 2012 and the Law on the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence, 2005. After a period of about 10 years, the legislators and the community also have to decide together what needs to change within those laws to adapt to the contemporary context. Strangely enough, this democratic process is not repeated when the laws are changed and the decisions are made unilaterally by the judiciary.
But laws are not enough. For example, after the POCS law was passed, we worked hard to make the legal language accessible. Today, all young leaders involved in DIKSHA can file a POCSO case with the police. As a result, they have been able to cut the number of abuses by half. This required ongoing capacity building so that young people could effectively understand the law, what to ask and where. We need more of that.
This interview was abridged and edited by Ashoka and was part of an impact study conducted by Ashoka’s law for everyone.