Kalighat: She got married at 15 to a boy of her choice in an attempt to escape abuse at home. Her mother, a sex worker, had planned to marry her off anyway, convinced that life would be “safer” for her with a husband.
Fourteen years later, the 29-year-old is a mother of two daughters. She does not want to get them married in a hurry. She wants them to study, understand their rights and help others opt out of early marriage.
“Marriage can never be an escape from abuse,” said the young woman, part of a group trying to empower children of sex workers in Kalighat.
Their efforts since 2004 have helped make boys and girls in the area confident, empowered and aware of the laws meant to protect them. The group operates out of two rented rooms in the red-light area, engaging with local kids and bringing about a change from within.
The kids go on to become crusaders themselves, intervening in cases of abuse and liaising with police to bring justice to young victims of abusive marriages and rape.
In a state where more than 60 per cent of children are married off before 18, the young brigade of 45 has brought down the marriage rate in their neighbourhood to less than 15 per cent in 10 years.
In a bylane in Kalighat’s Ward 83 are two one-room activity centres run by the NGO CRY in association with local partner Diksha. This is where a team of resilient and rights-conscious boys and girls between seven and 18 years of age are groomed.
From Monday to Friday, kids below 12 years meet between 7 and 8pm and those above 12 from 8 to 9pm for counselling and interactive sessions.
“The rooms are always open. Since many kids find it difficult to stay at home post-evening, they can also spend the night here. These rooms act as their safe zone,” said another daughter of a sex worker.
Early marriage, discrimination in school and repeated violence at home had ended her education. The newer generation is better off.
“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.
According to a national survey on childescents (children between 15 and 18 years) that CRY published last month, 1.1 million kids living in red-light districts are married off every year. Around 60.6 per cent get married between 14 and 19 years of age and one in five reports domestic violence.
According to Trina Chakrabarti, the regional director (east) of CRY, children across the city need “more safe spaces”.