Wednesday, August 10, 2005

BANGLADESH: CHILDREN OF SEX WORKERS FACE BLEAK FUTURE

Source: English IPS News
by Qurratul Ain Tahmina

DHAKA, Aug. 8, 2005 (IPS/GIN) -- When asked his mother's name, four-year-old, bright-eyed Jowel ventures softly, "Ma".

'Mother' is the only parental figure the 70 children in this Dhaka shelter can claim, and the lack of a father has serious implications for their future, starting with the fact that they are not entitled to a birth certificate.

The home, Durjoy Child-care Centre, is dedicated to helping children of street-based sex-workers and is run by the Durjoy Nari Sangha, a non-government organization (NGO).

It is morning. The modest sleeping quarters have become classrooms, where boys and girls in blue uniforms sit on the clean floor, learning the alphabet, practicing handwriting, drawing pictures on slate boards, or reciting poems.

While Jowel is regularly visited by his mother, others, like tiny Neela, have no visitors. "I like the lessons best," says one child.

Seven-year-old Selim agrees. "Previously I used to drift about with my mother. I had no chance to learn reading or writing," she says.

Getting three square meals a day was also rare, she admits. "Here I can eat meat and fish. I am hungry no more." Fruit and cakes are served at mid-morning and afternoon - a luxury for these children.

Shahinoor is 12 years old. "I can now bathe regularly and learn my lessons," he says happily. A recent survey by Durjoy finds that less than one-fourth of the children of Dhaka's street-based sex-workers attend schools.

Eleven-year-old Sheila dreads returning to the insecurity of her past. "For us to sleep on the pavement, my mother had to pay the policeman daily," she recalls.

"At night when mother went to work, I was left all alone."

Sheila remembers occasions when a policeman would beat her or drag her from sleep because he hadn't been paid. Verbal and physical abuses are common; risks of sexual abuse are high.

Shahnaz, the president of Durjoy, says: "The women have always demanded we do something for their children. We finally got this centre going in April 2004, with financial assistance from the HIV programme of the NGO, CARE-Bangladesh," she says.

Durjoy itself was formed in 1998 at the behest of CARE, which felt that promotion of safe sex through condom use couldn't be achieved unless the sex-workers were organized and had the strength of unity.

"We also realized that without addressing their pressing concerns, we couldn't address the issue of HIV prevention," says A.S.M. Enamul Hoque, an expert with the CARE programme. The well-being of their children, said Hoque, was a number-one concern for many sex-workers.

But many sex-workers also think that NGO projects are centered on HIV prevention more than on the serious problems they face in society. Just getting the child-care centre took six years.

The Constitution of Bangladesh declares that the state shall adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution as a fundamental state policy, and there are various restrictive laws. But an adult woman can join sex-work through signing an affidavit at a magistrate's court or with a Notary Public stating that she is above 18, the legal age of maturity, and doing it willingly and consciously.

While existing laws relating to prostitution are ambivalent, soliciting in public places is a punishable offence. "They are constantly on the run, suffering attacks by the police, thugs, and from the general public," says Hazera, a Durjoy volunteer.

The police and the thugs often demand free sexual services and steal the women's hard-earned and meager incomes.

Sulekha sells sex at a Dhaka railway station. Abandoned by her husband, she became a prostitute eight years ago. Sulekha has recently sent her five-year-old boy to the centre, while her younger daughter is still with her.

"During the day my son used to roam around, picking up bad words and getting into fights with other kids," says Sulekha. "At night I had to pay a woman to mind my kids while I went with a client. It cost me a lot".

Many mothers are forced to serve clients while keeping the children close by. "If left with us, our daughters would follow our path, while our boys would get into crime," says Shamima, a sex-worker who's plied her trade on Dhaka streets for the 11 years.

Using laws against vagrancy, the police regularly place these women in government shelter homes. Once that happens, they lose touch with their children, possibly forever.

Mothers need to pay the centre about five US dollars a month per child. Many, however, can't afford it. Following closure of a few brothels in recent years, business in the streets has become competitive. Some even report getting 20 taka, less than fifty cents, per act of sexual service.

Funded by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP), the government's department of social services runs a project for the sex-workers and their children. Four of its seven shelters are for the children of street-based sex-workers, all in Dhaka. These accommodate children from birth to 18 years of age, but can't hold more than 157 children.

While no recent survey is available, and the country-wide figure anybody's guess, CARE estimates the number of sex-workers in Dhaka streets to be around 5000.

The government project, on the other hand, has higher estimates that range between 12,000 and 15,000. The actual number of children that the street sex-workers have is difficult to estimate, though advocates say it would easily exceed 5,000 by all accounts.

"Our ultimate goal is to mainstream these children," says S.M. Ali Has Nain Fatme, coordinator of the Durjoy child-care project. "There are some programmes in different brothels, but the children of street- based sex-workers get very little attention".

Birth registration is compulsory in Bangladesh, but Fatme is unable to register the kids in the centre: "The prescribed form requires names and addresses of the father and the paternal grandfather," she explains.

CARE's HIV program funded the centre for about a year ago, and a UNICEF-managed HIV/AIDS prevention project of the government funded it for a few months.

Durjoy now awaits financial help from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) for a long-term, comprehensive project. But to avail foreign funding directly, Durjoy needs to get registered with the government's NGO Affairs Bureau.

"It will be a great disaster if Durjoy does not get the required registration," says Fatme. "We can't just shut the centre down." Fifteen of the children are abandoned and five are disabled.

"I have seen many women give up their children in adoption, even sell them, simply because they could not afford to keep the kids," says Hazera.

Ani's mother dropped him at the centre when he was barely a few months old, never to come back. Khodeja, one of the four ayahs (foster mothers) at the Durjoy centre, nursed him into a healthy, happy toddler. "I cannot stay away from the centre for long. I miss Ani," says Khodeja.

Sheila does not want to leave the centre, "It's my home. There are many bad men in the street. I am old enough to know the dangers. I could even be trafficked abroad," she says.

The Durjoy centre is meant for children up to seven years of age, and its attempts to send older children like Sheila to government homes have failed.

The department of social services runs 74 orphanages, but they are barred to children without a father's name.

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