The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kids and a window to awareness
- Thrice a week, an exploration of the identity and a resolution of dilemmas

It’s not about being male or female, but about being a person. It’s not about sex, but sexuality. It’s not about teaching, but exploration. Diksha is much more than just a community forum for a group of children from the red-light area of Kalighat. Diksha is their friend and counsellor, their means of dealing with problems they face every day, like prostitution, HIV/AIDS and a “negative view” of sex.

These youngsters meet thrice a week to discuss issues that are important to them, help resolve each other’s dilemmas and make sense of life around them. Some are children of sex workers, who have learnt to deal with their identity. And now, they are in the process of educating others.

Kalpana, a Class X student, recounts how “stunned” she was when one of her classmates told her that wearing a condom caused AIDS. “I used to be like that too. But now I know better and am trying to teach them.” Ashish is in Class VII, but knows all about misconceptions leading to hate. “Through our street plays, we try to make a difference in the lives of people here. We recently worked on removing the stigma on sex workers and their children by making others aware that these women have no choice. It’s either prostitution or starvation. At least they can feed their families and stand on their own feet.”

Exploring their individuality through their sexual identity is a big part of the learning process, explains Paramita Banerjee, who started the project in August ’99, with funding from the Mac Arthur Foundation. Paramita and colleague Sumita Bandhopadhyay are facing a serious funds crunch since the grant ended. “We have a few dedicated volunteers, but for the large part, the kids propagate it on their own,” says Paramita. They themselves conduct the sessions for newcomers on Saturdays, after they come back from school or work.

They have workshops on clay-making and puppetry, and are hoping to raise funds by selling their creations. Diksha’s new scheme is by, for and of women, mainly sex workers, inspired by the change in their children’s attitude. They also have a centre for younger children in Kidderpore. Mrityunjoy, in Class XII, admits he is at an age when he wants to go out with girls. “Till recently, I was very unsure of myself and very shy and secretive. Not any more. Because I have friends who are girls, through Diksha, I am not ashamed. I try to tell my friends the same thing.” Mrityunjoy wants to become a social worker, and continue Diksha’s work.

But the S-word is still taboo for many. Some had to drop out of the sessions because their families felt it was “not appropriate” for children to talk about “such things”. The children’s main awareness arsenal is their street plays, and after “showing people the right way to avoid HIV/AIDS”, they are now moving on to a new challenge — child rights. Their focus is child marriage, child labour, and also the treatment of widows. If determination is what matters, more than half the battle is won. “If you do good work then there will be obstacles. But you can’t let them stop you,” chorus the young champions of change.

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