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Difference Maker

Priti Patkar helps the children of Mumbai's sex workers

As a young social worker she was planning only to take a survey. But when she saw what was happening she knew she had to stay and help.

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    Priti Patkar started Prerana, which provides night shelters for the children of sex workers in the red-light districts of Mumbai.
    Courtesy of Prerana
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Thirteen-year-old Divya can’t remember a time when she was not scared of her mother’s customers. She dreamed of freedom, despite being urged by her mother and grandmother to take up their profession as a sex worker.

Divya’s determination to be free led her to a night shelter set up by Prerana, a nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking. Today, she has put her fears behind her, and she looks forward to a better life.

Prerana has answered the prayers of thousands of children and youths such as Divya (not her real name) in Mumbai, the most populous city in India. It rebuilds the lives of children rescued from red-light areas by providing night-care centers, an educational support program, and shelters for girls.

Helping the children of sex workers had never been a part of Priti Patkar’s life plan. But when the woman who would become the founder of Prerana saw the plight of girls and boys in Mumbai’s infamous red-light district, she vowed to help them, and she has done her best to fulfill that promise.

It all started when Ms. Patkar visited Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, to do research as a university student studying social work in 1986. What began as a simple survey turned into something much more as she began to learn about the living conditions of the children of sex workers in Kamathipura.

The sex workers opened up to her.

“I was shocked to learn that children were often drugged and put under the cots as their mothers solicited customers,” she recalls. “Who would ever have thought that these young children often [served] as masseurs for their mother’s customers and ran errands for them?”

A gold medalist at the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, Patkar could easily have turned her back on the sex workers and their children. But she didn’t.

“It was not just one incident” that moved her to action, she says. “I was shocked by the perfect plan of Kamathipura to groom children for [the] sex trade.... I was angry about how film stars visited these areas during festivals and never bothered to come back again, and how philanthropists conducted mass weddings as if that was the solution for the issue.”

Patkar came to understand what made these children eventually join the flesh trade.

“It was certainly not the wish of [their] mothers,” she explains. “The moment we met them, they told us that they were longing to send their children to the local school.... Since they couldn’t look after their children in the night, they [would be] happy to drop them at a shelter home.”

And so Patkar decided to create one.  

She was on a difficult mission, facing opposition from brothel owners, some of whom loathed her. “One brothel owner did not allow children from one entire lane to come to our shelter home,” she says.

But over time she developed a strategy to deal with them. “The brothel owners were intrigued by my straightforward manner,” Patkar says. “They underestimated both my will and resolve.”

Those around Patkar knew she was working hard for the rights of an “invisible” group of children. As word spread, two international philanthropists, Janet Genoud and Francine Kandaouroff, decided to fund her project.

“Not many people know that nearly 40 percent of prostitutes in India are children,” says Rekha Shetty, director of disaster management at Catholic Relief Services in India.“Prerana was the first organization to work against intergenerational trafficking.... Prerana has provided an alternative path for the children of sex workers, and it’s never [again] going to be ‘business as usual’ for brothel owners.”

Many of the women had disturbing stories to tell, Patkar recalls.

“When we asked women how they ended up in Kamathipura, their stories were related to trafficking. They were either abducted, promised marriage, [or] promised a good job and then brought and sold in brothels. There were men who married them, lived with them for few months, and then sold them into the sex trade. There were young girls who had run away with boyfriends who sold them.”

Patkar put measures in place to rescue these women. “If somebody approached us asking for help, we either contacted police or other NGOs,” she explains. “When some women asked for financial assistance to start their own business, we asked our donors to give them money directly. This helped the women move out.

“Most of the time, it’s the brothel keeper who makes money and the women never get anything. Hence, when the woman is earning them a lot of money it is hard for her to move out.”

Prerana has tackled the issue of child trafficking in many ways. It filed litigation in the High Court of Bombay in 2000 seeking help to establish guidelines for rescuing and rehabilitating victims of trafficking.

“Our mission is to ensure that a child born in a red-light area is not condemned to the sex trade,” Patkar says. “It was the conviction of mothers that their children should study in the local school that really worked for us.”

Since cofounding Prerana, Patkar has turned up almost every day in Kamathipura. Currently, Prerana operates four night-care centers in three red-light areas of Mumbai. Each provides wholesome food and access to medical, educational, and recreational facilities free of charge.

“Initially, it was hard to find people to work with children of sex workers, especially in Kamathipura,” Patkar recalls.

But thanks to her efforts, every day the Prerana team documents the growth of the organization. It also details the progress of every child enrolled in the program. In the past 28 years, Prerana has helped more than 10,000 children of sex workers.

Patkar has had to deal with discouraging media reports about the challenges facing her work. “Ignoring or avoiding such reports was the only option. When we wanted something, our team went after it with everything,” she says. “Noticing the low enrollment ratio of children from Kamathipura in the local school, we decided we wanted more students in the school. Hence, we took up the matter with [a government official] who was able to convince the school authorities to admit the children.”

When not performing her myriad duties at one of the night-care centers, Patkar is working on raising awareness about child sex trafficking and helping other nongovernmental organizations.

When an organization decides to work on the issue, the task of orientation often falls on her. There’s little time for leisure, and that’s fine with her. She is driven to succeed in her mission.

Uma Subramanian, codirector of Aarambh, a joint initiative of Prerana and the ADM Capital Foundation, has this to say about Patkar: “I have worked with NGOs across India and noticed most of them often faltering and cutting corners.... However, Prerana is one of the NGOs that has delivered what they promised. Every single child who lands in their safety net has been taken care of.

“Subsequently, they have taken care of mothers, too. Further, they have never monopolized their work but raised the issue in various forums and got other NGOs to work with them.... With the support of Prerana, we have started Aarambh. Priti ... offered her support and expertise to us.”

• To learn more about the work of Prerana, visit www.preranaantitrafficking.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are links to three groups that help children in need around the world:

Plan International USA works side by side with communities in 50 developing countries to end the cycle of poverty for children. Take action: Protect a girl from child traffickers and send her to school.

Children of the Night is dedicated to rescuing America’s children from prostitution. Take action: Volunteer to organize an activity day for children.

The Nepal Youth Foundation brings hope to destitute children in Nepal. Take action: Rescue girls from bonded servitude.

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