DELHI, India — In a dingy alleyway, adjacent to a public urinal and only yards from Delhi’s infamous brothels, barefoot children with matted hair play hopscotch — blissfully unaware their mothers are having sex with strangers nearby.
One boy reaches down to help his younger sister who has fallen over and grazed her knee.
Most of the 50 children here are too young to comprehend they are the offspring of some of the 3,500 prostitutes who work on Gartin Bastion Road. It’s the city center’s largest red light area, a narrow, filthy street of two- and three-story buildings near the teeming New Delhi railway station.
Shops line the ground floor. About 100 brothels operate above.
While the storefronts may be a facade for what is going on upstairs, they do not mask the overwhelmingly seedy ambiance. Some of the children’s whacked-out mothers hang off brothel balconies, scouting for their next clients.
On G.B. Road, as it’s known, women entertain men for about $2 each. Often plied with alcohol, tobacco and smack, they can earn a couple extra dollars by having sex without a condom.
The children’s hopes
Born into brothels — into a scene of drugs, alcohol, criminal activity, sex, exploitation and violence — the children here were bound for a future of prostitution or pimping; a future derelict of education or promise.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are more than 20 million prostitutes in India. As many as 35 per cent of them enter the trade when they are younger than 18.
But behind the confines of Delhi’s sordid underground is a woman who, for more than two decades, has been changing these children’s lives.
In 1991, 52-year-old Lalitha, a plump woman from the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, set up Mashaal Kendra, a school for the prostitutes who are between 1 and 15 years old.
She began with only three children. Today, there are 50. Many have gone on to higher education — to become engineers, doctors and teachers.
Thirty-five children live permanently at the school, which is essentially a residence. They are the lucky ones. There are far many more children in the neighborhood who live in the brothels or are essentially orphas.
“We needed to do something for our children,” says Lalitha, who gives her first name only to avoid retribution from brothel owners.
“We want to give them an education. We want to prevent the next generation of prostitutes.”
This is not your ordinary school.
During the day, boys with shaved heads and girls in second-hand clothing are taught outside, sitting on the ground, by one of the eight staff members.
In between classes, they munch on biscuits and drink chai.
Teaching materials, like money, are limited.
At night, they watch television crammed into a dingy blue room, with one mattress on the floor.
The kitchen consists of a couple of pots and pans on the floor of one of the school’s three rooms.
Despite only having the most basic materials, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope, happiness and, most importantly, family.
Lalitha said some of the children still see their mothers, who visit fortnightly or monthly. But the visits are short and often confusing, especially for the younger children who understand Lalitha to be their mother and caregiver.
The majority of the mothers who are asked to donate toward the cost of their child’s education don’t, Lalitha adds.
Some mothers never visit.
The children generally don’t know who their fathers are; their mothers aren’t sure which client got them pregnant.
The women are trapped in an unforgiving situation, forced to provide for strangers rather than their own blood.
The children appear to be an inconvenience rather than anything else.
“If the children stay with their mothers, they have to entertain the child,” Lalitha says.
“If the baby is crying, they will have to attend to them rather than servicing their client. If the child is left alone in the brothel they are often abused. In the end, they loose earnings and get in trouble.”
She says pimps in the brothels control the women through their pregnancies, and that female feticide is common. This was evident at the school, where the majority of children are boys.
“Many children are aborted if they are girls. Some are sold. Prostitution is forced. It is not voluntary. These women have serial numbers on them. It’s just horrible,” Lalitha says.
“The prostitutes are only allowed one or two children. If they become pregnant again, the child is aborted.”
Lalitha multitasks as she speaks, helping a young child use one of the two squat toilets outside, while handing out more biscuits to the dirty little hands in front of her.
When asked whether the children know what their mothers do, she says: “It’s like a play to them. They don’t know or understand what is going on. Many have asked: ‘why does my mother kiss that man?’ They will need thorough counseling. I believe though that they should keep a relationship with their mothers.”
In April 2013, India’s parliament made trafficking a penal offense, with severe punishments for recruiters, transporters, agents, pimps, brothel managers and owners, landlords, financiers and clients.
But Delhi’s brothels continue to flourish, with occasional police raids.
“These women come to Delhi from rural villages under false assurances. They are sold like commodities,” Lalitha says.
“Their future is grim, but we have high hopes for their children.”