CHILDREN run up and down the stairs, in and out of a two-storey building deep inside the Bagh Munshi Ladha locality of old Lahore. A while later some of them are seen learning pottery, a few practising martial arts and another group huddled around their teachers.
These four to 14 year olds are the children of sex workers, dancing girls, musicians and the destitute of the inner city, and this building is the Learning Hubs community space where they’re provided with educational, health, vocational, recreational and counselling services.
The idea for this intervention was conceived in 2016 when a non-governmental organisation was requested to arrange tuitions for two children of a dancer. “While my family and I were working on a project with Akhuwat Foundation and the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), my 18-year-old son was asked by a tourism officer to arrange the tuition. That’s where it all started. We visited the Shahi Mohalla, and saw a recently closed school that was earlier run by a local woman. We thought of restarting it instead of establishing a new one because you can’t gain a foothold as an outsider,” Zerka Tahir of the Sustainable Intervention Drive that developed the idea of Learning Hubs told Dawn.
They involved a group of local women — one of whom had apparently performed with veteran actress Anjuman. A visually impaired woman in her 60s, who was still in the field and expressed interest in working, was hired as a music teacher as she sang ghazals. She told Zerka: “Aaj aap ne meri tanhai ka ilaaj kar diya hai (Today, you have rid me of my loneliness).”
As the school started functioning, a UK-based organisation desired to fund it, so it was handed over to it and Zerka started planning one of her own. She explored the area. The mother of the children for whom she was asked to get a tutor lived in the “mini red light area” of Bagh Munshi Ladha, populated by most of the families from the original red light area after a crackdown on them in the ‘80s. Without being rehabilitated and provided music-related opportunities, the families bought properties here and got into prostitution full time. The area was teeming with brothels, drug peddlers and illegal abortion clinics.
Zerka saw here an opportunity to build a community on a participatory development model to concentrate not just on the children, but entire families. Thus, Learning Hubs was launched on March 23, 2018 in partnership with Akhuwat, WCLA and Punjab Aids Control Programme to provide education, vocational training, recreational, health and counselling facilities to the children of sex workers, musicians, dancers, drug addicts, pimps/promoters and those with unknown parentage.
The WCLA provides logistical support and most of the funds by Akhuwat, while some are raised. Akhuwat also provides microfinance loans to pay off the sex workers’ debts and pull them out of brothels, as in some cases the third generations are into prostitution, drug dealing, pimping because of unpaid loans.
“We started off with just making our presence felt without threatening them and their way of life, or being judgemental. We wanted to provide them with all the opportunities and thought even if one child from a brothel comes in, we’ll be successful,” Zerka recalled.
Kicking off from one room, Learning Hubs gradually expanded to an entire building housing an educational and recreational centre, a health clinic for the community, as well as adjacent spaces for a community kitchen and a vocational hub. In collaboration with government and non-government entities, around 150 families are provided subsidised ration, drug addicts sent to Fountain House for rehab, eye problems treated at a welfare eye hospital, children’s health issues treated at the Children’s Hospital. All of this is offered on the condition that the children are sent to a school. Any school.
Out of the 80 children at Learning Hubs – with an almost equal ratio of boys and girls – around 30 come from families of former and current sex workers, while the remaining live in the vicinity but are equally vulnerable to rampant drug dealing.
Initially, they engaged the dancer, who had asked for tuitions, as a social mobiliser to convince families to send their children to the Hubs for education, and were later joined by more women from the community whom the locals trusted. “The children are now bright, well-groomed, polite, and their capacity to learn is remarkable,” Zerka observed.
The centre that is open from 9am to 4pm daily for six days a week follows the Punjab curriculum and Textbook Board curriculum that is supplemented with project-based learning.
Owing to the community lifestyle, the children stay up all night and sleep during the day. To force them to wake up in the morning, the centre introduced martial arts as an incentive. Surprisingly, they arrive on time to jog at 7:30am and start their martial arts class at 8am. Zerka explained, “The teacher can’t believe how quick they pick up. We’re also instilling in them core values.” Eleven-year-old Zain, whose family has been playing tabla for generations, said he wanted to become a singer but had also started taking interest in studies.
Besides teaching them vocational skills, Zerka said they wanted to make the children confident enough and well-equipped to own their backgrounds and lifestyles. “We want them to own their individual personality and skill. I call these children Heera Mandi’s collateral damage. While the girls get into dancing or prostitution, the boys only have stories of pimping and drug addition to tell when they grow up. Their generations grow up amidst all this, that’s all they see and know. We’re showing them a childhood that every child has a right to along with the right to health, education and vocation.”
After being equipped with confidence, basic education and some skill in around five years at the centre, the children are sent to government schools to mainstream them. An in-house psychologist also counsels the children regularly to prepare them for what’s to come.
Zerka claimed she visited brothels to convince them to send children to school and the effort paid off. “Some children will stay for two or even 10 years depending on them and their families. If a family is still into sex work, we will educate the child till we’re sure they won’t turn to the same profession or drugs or pimping. We educate kids till the families are able to generate a sustainable income through micro-loans.”
The Bagh Munshi Ladha street, dotted with brothels and illegal abortion clinics till only a couple of years ago, now has just one of each left. Zerka believed those activities had declined with their presence though they were never judgemental. She said: “We have created a prototype and expect others to do their part and replicate it in other marginalised areas. In the future, we want to establish a boarding school and an old-age home.”
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2021