A group of researchers from the Center for Global Health and Development, University of Boston, have produced an interesting report about another forgotten collective of the sex industry and drugs world. The researched are the most innocent people yet to be examined because they did not choose to face the problems of their realities but much on the contrary they were forced into them simply because their parents were either injecting drug users, sex workers or a combination of both
The report based mainly in Easter European, Asian and African countries concluded that in most occasions children inherit from their parents the same types of stigmatization and discrimination suffered as a consequence of substance misuse or sexual trade. However by mentioning the work of two different organisations (MAMA+ and TASINTA) the authors also concluded that the effects of social marginalisation and health risks could be mitigated by numerous potential sources of resilience connected to support networks aimed at empowering women, stretching parent-child bounding and developing educational opportunities.
Children of sex workers and injection drug users in developing countries are a hidden population, counting for as much as the unknown figures of their parents. In western nations the subject also remains a little bit obscure although some countries like the UK estimate that almost half a million children live with parents who reported drugs and alcohol abuse. This figure, obtained through national household data, could not be extrapolated to other developing countries because they do not have the resources to conduct proper research.
Another important factor reinforcing the invisibility of these children is that although The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the existence of between 11 and 25 million injection drug users worldwide such organisation does not provide any sort of information about their children. So, it can only be assumed that for whatever reason an undetermined number of users will at some point in their lives become parents. This, needless to say, does not do any favour when trying to solve the problems mentioned above because children will remain kept in as much secrecy as their parent’s injection use.
A direct consequence of such secrecy is the lack of opportunity to assess the magnitude of children vulnerability caused by their parents use and in many cases due to the fear of rejection in the school or in the communities parents will prefer to omit their lifestyles in order to protect their children, something that makes the understanding of the problems much more difficult to achieve. In addition prison sentences or recovery treatments can also alter children’s well being. Furthermore, drug interventions tend to focus on the needs of at-risk adults disregarding their families.
Figures for sex workers’ children are also difficult to establish for the simple reason that nobody seems to come to terms with a valid definition for sex work or even agree on what is legal or illegal, and, accordingly, figures from country to country vary. The following names and occupations within the industry including caste-based Devadasis in India or Kanjar families in Pakistan, brothel-based prostitutes, waitresses/bar girls who sell sexual favours within the establishments where they are employed, street walkers, dancing girls, and courtesans or taiwaifs who entertain men they call “husbands” and receive cash and other material gifts, only reflect the different criteria by which countries count all these varieties of sex work. The following data of estimated sex workers in urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (0.7%-4.3%) Asia (0.2%-2.6%), former Soviet countries (0.1%-1.5%), Eastern Europe (0.4%-1.4%), Western Europe (0.1%-1.4%), and Latin America (0.2%-7.4%) confirm this trend while omit the percentage of sex workers who are mothers.
There are, however, other sources of information to suggest that unplanned children can be born in poor areas. “Save the Children” in Bangladesh, for instance, denounced a situation where sex workers in two large brothel communities had little or none access to or knowledge of contraception. This is a pure reflection of how women can be deprived of sexual and health education pointing out two of the biggest problems with sex work: undesired pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases.
Other evidence contained in the report also denounces the vulnerability of the children of sex workers in South Asia: separation from parents, sexual abuse, early sexual debut, introduction to sex work as adolescents, low school enrolment, witnessing mother’s sexual interactions with clients, and social marginalization. The research on sex workers and their families also illustrates how generational transactional sex work for taiwaif families happens in Lahore, giving an example of a girl who after giving birth to a daughter when she was 15 felt that she would have someone to replace her in the business when she was 30. Giving birth to a girl was like producing a personal pension plan because a daughter’s youth and beauty could sustain her family, just like the mother did when she was younger.
On the other hand, not all the findings are pessimistic as the Devadasis can prove. These people have strong family support in their native villages and tend to leave their children behind when they return to their brothels visiting their relatives once or twice a year. Their earnings, interventions, supportive peers, and brothels organized around native villages were found to make child rearing easier for those women whose children remained with them. On top of that it must be added that 300 children of sex workers interviewed felt that they had not been discriminated in school because their mothers’ occupations. Most (58%) also reported receiving vocational or professional training. And, among the 500 mothers interviewed 95% claimed that they could access health check-ups and immunizations respectively, and 53% had received referrals for specialized care.
In Russia and Ukraine MAMA+ is doing an excellent job combating the stigmatisation of HIV positive pregnant women and encouraging them to keep their babies instead of giving them in adoption. Established in the USA with the solid of idea of stopping infected mothers abandoning children in hospitals this organisation networks with other agencies to combat the mothers’ fear of living with AIDS, preventing mother-to-child transmission, fighting social and medical discrimination, avoiding future unplanned pregnancies, and offering financial help to avoid homelessness . 35% of MAMA+ clients were injection drug users and 44% had criminal records. The organisation provided alcohol and substance misuse counselling, harm reduction, legal advice, drug substitution therapies and rehabilitation programs.
TASINTA (not its real name) is a Tanzania based organisation working with the children of sex workers. Originally founded to raise HIV awareness among sex workers, these, suddenly became more involved demanding support for their children. As a response TASINTA soon developed residential care partnerships for children whose mothers died and fiercely monitored the orphans’ relationships with their surviving relatives in order to avoid child labour and sexual enslavement. Some residential services or day centres can also be found in different countries across Africa and Asia and they provide a diverse range of activities ranging from educational services to safe places where mothers safely can sleep with their children and spare them from the contact with their clients among other things.
In definitive it can be said that despite the lack of official data about the children of sex workers and injection drug users in developing countries an emerging model of social protection is beginning to take off inspired by different NGOs where information is available. The way to total inclusion for those children, however, remains as difficult as the one for their parents and lot of work still will need to be done.