Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

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Towards an Indian Pedagogy for the Oppressed

The sex worker community is perpetually denied the right and opportunity to Education, which can be one of the sharpest weapons for any one's self-defense and self-dependence, and is one of the basic rights of any citizen.

When SHIP commenced, almost 84.5% of sex workers were illiterate. It was an impediment quickly recognized as a major impediment to the work of SHIP and for the wider empowerment of sex workers as a group. So the education initiative started with informal classes held for the first groups of PEs in 1992. It has now grown into a large statewide program. In many areas, Durbar self-funds all its education programme, The adult programme is based on a dialogical approach (developed with the help of educations), and is divided into classes for beginners (Korok) and more advanced learners (Digangana). The program now covers 310 adult learners at any point of time.

To begin with methodology of learning was evolved through a didactic process where learners also take part in selecting and designing the content of the curriculum. it was a term used by the society to ostracize their life and occupation. They were averse to read or learn that word. They demanded that they should create newer terminology instead of 'dirty words'. Which society created to abuse them. The learners strongly resisted some other vocabulary also. For them learning was something special, almost 'pure' and 'holy', and so learning the alphabet through following dirty words were unacceptable. Durbar thought over the issue and experimented on few other words - such as 'signal', 'yellow', 'red' and so on. Opinion polls were conducted and the collective knowledge was used to structure sentences. This dialectical process helped women to speak about themselves and their lives and was a big achievement.

Besides developing formal literacy, this education program provided women a space that did not previously exist in, a space that let them reflect on their own lives, and in which they are exposed to new ideas which they can evaluate in relation to their own realities. It helped in stimulating sex workers' critical thinking skills and confidence to interact with others.

They generated the habit of asking questions. The interactive process created a learning atmosphere where they play their role both as learner and educator to teachers who share different perspective and value system. They felt that by participating in discussions they could also enlighten the teachers… They also mentioned 'if you want our suggestions, listen what we are saying not engage in a top down teaching and do not impose something against an dignity and respect.


Equal Participation - Durbar repositions sex workers' children

In contrast to some popular belief and media representations of sex workers' odd relationships with their children (e.g. Born into Brothels) where sex workers are depicted as negligent, abusive parents who push their children into criminality and sex work) Durbar has to focus respecting the popular demands of sex workers to run not only non formal education program but varied activities to help build the career of their children.

Durbar's primary strategy was to address childcare and develop a range of programs that support children's education at different stages - with the aim of mainstreaming the children within local school system rather than sending them away to residential homes. The effort was to strengthen the relationship between the children and their mothers as they learn to accept their mother's profession and thereby challenge social discriminatory practice.

Durbar convinced the mothers that they had to overcome three hurdles - 1) the child's attitude and ignorance 2) the discriminatory practices of schools / institutions system 3) Enhancement of their self esttem and coverage to deal with socially imposed value system. Durbar advocated with heads of institutions for dropout, and convinced them that sex workers were an underprivileged class of occupation and their children should not be deprived of educational opportunities. Based on feed backs from principals or headmasters it was revealed that teachers who were once reluctant or initially denied admission to sex workers' children, later expressed satisfaction on their performance in school.

The dropout rate of the children of sex workers were high to begin with, because of discriminatory practices and stigma attached to sex work and their children. In India there is all pirasive discriminatory practices which involves techer, parents and particularly middle class men and women who as a common practices took their down.

Durbar's children's education program is aptly termed 'Berebheng' (breaking the fence). It has 5 components: 1)pre-school child care (delivered by older sex workers), 2) extra academic support for junior school-going children, 3) education centres for school drop-outs, 4) special coaching centres for senior school children, and 5) vocational training schemes for teenagers (named Srishti). Durbar also runs two residential hostels in Baruipur and Ultadanga for children, who for various reasons are unable to stay with their mothers.Wherever possible, teaching staff are recruited from within the sex worker community. The program has developed some highly innovative teaching methods to re-capture the enthusiasm of children disillusioned with learning. A key aim of the entire program is to start and maintain constant interaction with 'mainstream' children's activities by encouraging sex workers' children to participate in 'sit and draw' contests, sports or quizzes and cultural programs organized during festivals and tagging with various social events. Teachers from mainstream schools and members of other local bodies (e.g. elected corporation, counselor etc) are invited to initiate dialogue and interaction with sex workers' children.



Durbar's education programs have faced considerable resistance and has fought hard to bring about change. Here is an illustrative event:

They (an NGO) were running a school and it was found that they were teaching the children to work hard so that they could take their mothers out of this place. We met the teachers - they said, we are not working with the sex workers, we are working with the children and we will tell them what we think is right. The sex workers said no, if you do this, then we would close this school. The teachers talked to their superiors and the school remained closed. The teacher was angry and asked with a scornful voice "so if we want to teach the children - do we need to learn from their mothers what education is all about". Sex workers replied ", yes of course ". Seeing it a big problem - the teachers lobbied local political leaders - who organized a meeting where teacher and sex workers leadership reached an understanding. Initially the political leaders who got involved in the process supported the NGO's view but when he listened to mothers could grasp the issue. After much discussion they came to support sex workers mother position. And now those political leaders are part of the SRB and work closely with the sex workers collective.


Durbar's program also aims to broaden the children's horizons and to instill in them a sense of capability and imagination, whilst recognizing their own realities. Here is another real-life story:

On an educational tour we went to Darjeeling with the students. We organized a Film Festival in two categories, one for adults and another for children. We also showed a film on women, and they took special initiative during discussions and started recognizing the plight of women engaged in low paid and less respected occupation. We try and expose them to other kinds of thought, which is inaccessible to them. Apart from books we try to educate them, by providing exposure to another world through films, discussions etc.


Empowered by Education

By way of vocational training, 238 children have so far been enrolled in various vocational training programs (e.g. beautician, electrical instrument repairs, photography, TV/radio repair), almost all of them completed the training curriculum and almost all of them are engaged in one or other jobs and managing their livelihood.


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