Statistics in India are as confusing as the demographics of the subcontinent.
At last count, in 2016, it was reported that there are 657,829 women sex workers in India. The number of children involved in the sex trade is estimated at 1.2 million. However, “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.” (cf: Ashoka Foundation)
The number of sex workers in Kolkata, India’s third most-populous city , is unaccounted, ranging from 6,000–30,000 and counting. The estimate is low in a city of 14.5 million people.
Though sex work is not illegal in India, trafficking is.
Amidst this backdrop, DIKSHA (Discovering Inner Knowledge & Sexual Health Awareness), an NGO, was started by 16 teenagers and Paramita Banerjee in 1999 in the Kalighat area of Kolkata. “The acronym was a play on different themes that the kids wanted to include in the name,” says Paramita Banerjee in a phone conversation earlier this year. “The focus is on change from within; changing the self, changing the community — -under the leadership of community youth.” Ms. Banerjee calls herself “the incidental 17th cofounder.”
This exceptional vision grew out of desires for autonomy of the children of sex workers in slums of Kolkata such as Kalighat, Khidirpur and Munshi Ghat. The children, often ages 6 to 18 wanted the agency to educate others in their community about sex and reproductive health; get girls to shelter and away from abusive households; steer boys away from pimping and to fight the social discrimination that children of sex workers face in schools. The related issues of substance abuse, manual scavenging, bone-chilling poverty are addressed by DIKSHA in 150–200 regular activities by volunteers, half of whom are from the local community.
The organization that Paramita Banerjee started has directly affected upwards of 9,000 adolescents, empowering conversations and peer-to-peer guidance, and breaking the inter-generational sex work and abuse. Ms. Banerjee gives most of the credit to the young children who created a safe space for themselves and their friends, becoming working partners in the change that they sought. That is the radical difference of DIKSHA from a social welfare NGO providing services.
In an article, Ms. Banerjee is quoted:
“These kids select their own leaders who receive additional skill development in leadership, advocacy and alliance building. They are linked directly to bodies of power such as the police, local elected representatives and school teachers, who act as 24X7 watchdogs to intervene in any situation of rights violation faced by any child in the area. They are supported by the Rakhi team, a group of adult women who act as backup support for initiatives by the women. Further, members of the work group comprising youth from the community are now on DIKSHA’s payroll.”
In an Ashoka Fellow induction series article, Ms. Banerjee’s radical approach is outlined:
[To,] “hear beyond what they thought I wanted to hear,” she had to make herself invisible to the process while holding the strings of the experience. Banerjee didn’t dictate the conversation or jump in to shape it initially around gender and sexuality. Instead, the children were free to focus on everything from their favourite film stars, to artfully depicting scenes from their lives in the districts. The topics of conversation gradually deepened to issues like the need to escape the abuse at home, the brutality of inter-generational sex-work and pimping. Over time, the youth were made aware of their own rights, developed a healthy relationship with their bodies and demanded that the ‘DIKSHA’ space be made permanent. “I’m only one out of sixteen founders,” says Banerjee, “I don’t want to run an organisation. I was interested in opening this space, and to grow with it.”
Paramita Banerjee’s life is as extraordinary as the organization that she’s established. A child from a well-off Kolkata family, she entered Presidency College, the most prestigious institution in Kolkata and one of the top-ranking colleges in India, and was a star student. Her social awareness antenna drew her to the most marginalized group in the city — -women and children in red-light areas where the cycle of poverty, abuse, and discrimination was relentless. She moved to one of these areas, lived in the slum for five years and shared a single bathroom with the entire settlement. She also wrote a proposal for population and reproductive health, which the MacArthur Foundation funded in 1999. Today, Ms. Banerjee is an Ashoka Fellow, one of 3,500 or so social entrepreneurs working toward far-reaching social change in 92 countries.
One of DIKSHA’s donor organizations, CRY (Child Rights and Youth) underscores the effectiveness of DIKSHA’s work in a newspaper article:
“Ten years ago, most women in red-light areas would try to marry off their daughters early to save them from prostitution. Many daughters of sex workers would grow up in shelter homes and childcare institutions. By 16, they would be married off. A large number would run away and get married themselves, just to avoid living in a shelter. But in most cases, these marriages would lead to more violence,” said Protik Banerjee, senior manager (development support) at CRY.
Many of DIKSHA’s children have moved on and some continue as adult mentors. One of them, Tumpa Adhikari, sums up one of the activities used by the group:
“To lecture people would be impossible. They wouldn’t listen. Drama is easy therapy. We get peoples’ attention and make them listen”