They are unusually mature and sensitive for their age. But that's not surprising. They have grown up in unusual conditions: They live in the red light areas. It is not startling, then, to hear Manjula, 14, speak in a serious and almost all-knowing manner: "When parents and, in most cases, uncles take their daughters or nieces for a `ride' and then hand them over to some other person for money, we call it trafficking."
Children who grow up in such localities see their mothers or other women in the family and neighborhood standing on the streets in the evenings and bringing home male customers.
Apne Aap Women Worldwide (AAWW), a civil society organization working with children living in the red light areas of Kolkata, notes that children here are vulnerable to abuse, violence, stigma and discrimination on a daily basis. They may be sold, or kidnapped by procurers to be taken to other parts of the country, and pushed into sex work.
Notes S. Suresh Kumar of the West Bengal AIDS Prevention and Control Society: "Children, already traumatised by the process of trafficking, are raped repeatedly and are extremely vulnerable to the threat of HIV and AIDS."
AAWW has come out with a unique book. Comprising of accounts of children living in Sonagachi and Kalighat (red light areas in Kolkata), it is titled, `The Place Where We Live is Called a Red Light Area'. It was released recently by Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. The slim book, which includes drawings by these children, reveals a somber, but hopeful, view of life.
One of the accounts shows that from time to time, men dressed as policemen come into the locality to pick up children. But the children have learned to evade these men, quickly informing each other and their parents. Often their mothers and other women in the area fight back the traffickers, even chasing them away with brooms. They have learnt to deal with the nightmarish threat of trafficking looming large in their lives, and they have evolved their own strategies to deal with it.
And they are not overwhelmed by the misfortune and the danger in their lives. They look at the phenomenon of child trafficking in a preternaturally analytical way. Says Mili, 14: "Both boys and girls get trafficked. Little children who do not even know the names of their parents are caught and trafficked. These children are trained to become pickpockets, touts, thieves and robbers. The girls are sold outside the country. Family members... sell their children to foreign countries for a small amount of money."
Abhimanyu, 15, explains that many traffickers "have large factories in Delhi and America. These factories engage five- and six-year-old boys and girls.... They are sold again, when they are older. Young boys and girls are trafficked this way." They say that there is no use calling the police, because they only create more trouble rather than help them.
Most children are sympathetic to the women in these red light areas. "Those who do such bad work are not bad themselves.... They are not to be blamed because in many cases they have been sold by their husbands or parents or friends," they explain.
And they do not shy away from offering a way out of the dead-end alley of their lives to the elders. For example, Anjali, 16, spoke to women in her area about the possibility of earning money in other ways. They seemed eager, but their husbands were angry because they wanted money coming into the household on a daily basis. With a job, money would come in only at the end of the month.
One of them had, however, asked Anjali to teach her to read and write. Later, she left the area and took up a job as an attendant in a hospital; she came back to thank Anjali for her help. Says Anjali, "Perhaps no one will believe me, but this is a true incident."
With their irrepressible enthusiasm, the children look to the future and find a bright spot on the horizon of their bleak lives. They express a strong conviction that HIV/AIDS patients must be looked after rather than neglected: "After all, they are also human beings," they assert. Many of them say they would like to study further, become doctors or social workers, help the victims of AIDS, and work to prevent the infection from spreading.
Mili had even warned her mother and other neighborhood women about the dangers of AIDS. Her family told her she was talking of things beyond her age. Not one to give up, she has resolved: "After I become a doctor, I will open a clinic in this area and spread awareness. The men who buy prostituted sex must be made aware of the consequences of their desire and actions."
The views and dreams of these young people are touching, and even inspiring. Living in the midst of gloom, they refuse to abandon hope. They see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.