Madhavi, 12, of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, is an aspiring poet.
“I love music and poetry,” she says. “When I grow up, I want to teach poetry to little children.”
But the girl’s own childhood was far from poetic. Deep scars on Madhavi’s face mark the time a dog mauled her at age 2 while she was living on the streets with her mother, who earned a living as a sex worker.
Yet Madhavi’s eyes shine as she smiles and dreams about her future.
“To be a schoolteacher and take care of so many children will be fun,” she says.
And she now has the opportunity to achieve her dreams. No longer living on the streets with her mother, she has safe shelter at Chaithanya Happy Home and studies in the fifth grade at a city school.
Chaithanya Happy Home is part of Chaithanya Mahila Mandali, India’s first nonprofit organization founded by a former sex worker, Jayamma Bandari. Between the ages of 4 and 14, the 35 girls living in the home are all daughters of commercial sex workers.
Even a decade ago, the fate for these girls was to join the same profession as their mothers once they came of age. Today, however, they are living in a safe place and are attending one of the best English-medium schools in Hyderabad, dreaming of becoming schoolteachers, engineers, doctors and revenue collectors.
The stigma and discrimination attached to female sex workers in Indian society trickles down to their daughters. To change this, nongovernmental organizations are working to secure basic rights for the girls, such as education, with the help of the 2010 Right to Education Law. But activists say more needs to be done to change age-old societal attitudes stigmatizing sex workers and their daughters and to pay for continuing education.
In Hyderabad alone, there are more than 25,000 female sex workers, according to Chaithanya Mahila Mandali. Bandari's organization has helped 600 of them to possess valid proof of identity. But thousands of others are still unable to access free health care, to vote or to open a bank account.
More than 60 percent of the total number of sex workers in Hyderabad do not own any property and live in rented apartments, Bandari says. They do not reveal their real profession to their landlords or to their neighbors, fearing that they will be evicted and shunned.
“A normal parent will never allow his or her kids to mingle with the kid of a sex worker or keep social relations with sex workers,” Bandari says. “The sex workers, therefore, live in total social exclusion.”
This exclusion – for being sex workers and also single mothers – trickles down to their children, denying them basic rights in the past such as education.
Anita, a sex worker whose surname is withheld to protect her identity, is the single mother of a daughter in Mumbai, India’s most populous city. She says that 10 years ago, she took her daughter to a local school, but the authorities wouldn’t enroll her without two parents’ names. So Anita used to have to pay a man to act as her husband in order to admit her daughter into the school.
Bandari, whose ex-husband forced her into prostitution when she was a young mom with a daughter, wanted to change this for daughters of sex workers. So she founded Chaithanya Happy Home three years ago to give the girls a safe place to live and to enroll them in school.