Please note all names have been changed to protect identity. All the stories and incidents that I have mentioned in this post are true and it is something that I have personally experienced.
Prostitution and Women in Prostitution. Did you just flinch? It is a very common reflex for anyone. They are the “dirty secret” of our society which we choose to turn ignore by firmly shutting our eyes. One issue that we refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Who cares about a group of nameless, faceless women doing the “dirty work” day after day, night after night? We call them a number of vile names, appreciate an art film made by a popular director and then erase it from our memories.
But for me, there is a group amongst them, a seemingly small group, which is dedicatedly fighting for their cause. These remarkable women are a part of Aastha Parivaar. They have a simple agenda; women in prostitution exist and they deserve to live a life of dignity. I have worked with them for a very short duration and my contribution to the cause has inconsequential, but it is with them that I have had the greatest experiences of my life.
Before I started interning with this organization, I had a vague idea about the issue of prostitution. Sure, I would participate in heated debates on the issue and would snootily advocate my ideas to improve the situation but reality hit me hard when I had to convince my parents just to go for the first interview. My parents, my sensible educated middle class parents who would openly talk about issues, were fearful. They posed a hundred million questions, tried various tactics, ranging from anger to logic, to dissuade me and then finally just decided to let me go.
In my first week with AasthaParivaar, I was caught in a whirlwind of information. All the beliefs I had were broken down to nothing. Sometimes I could not help but let out a snort of laughter; everything I ‘knew’ was wrong. I interacted with the members, got to know the work they do and learnt to have an immense respect for them.
The issues that these women would have to fight for were basic; things we would take for granted. Things like getting a little dignity in government hospitals, using sanitary napkins, getting their children admitted in a good school, finding a place to live or just knowing that one day when they would die, there would be somebody to light their funeral pyre. The last one is the most shocking, isn’t it? Yes, I had seen a lady like that who had passed away and nobody came forward to give her a funeral till these very women, who we disparagingly call ‘prostitutes’ contributed money to light her pyre and conduct a puja for her.
These women have formed 13 Community Based Organizations that work for male sex workers, female sexworkers, the LGBT community and the transgender. They collectively reach out to thousands of people every month and provide them basic health services along with counseling, legal help and much more.
I wish I could tell compress my experience and tell it all to you in this one post but I can’t. But what I can do is tell you three very inspiring stories that will help you understand why these women are #madeofgreat.
Shivani was around 20 when she left Bengal to come to Mumbai to look for work. She wanted to study and do something with her life but the circumstances did not allow her follow her dreams. I met Shivani on three separate occasions and I remember these clearly. She would always be beautifully dressed and was particularly fond of make up. Shivani even showed me a lipstick case that one of her regular clients gifted her and offered to apply make up for me because I would never bother. In all these meetings, I never asked her how she ended up in the flesh trade. Rather our conversatiosn would revolve around her future.
She would speak to me in English and would tell me the latest topic that she was attempting to master for her exams. Shivani was about 42 and had enrolled herself in a distance course to complete her Bachelors in Management Studies. Yes, she would go on the street every night to get clients and she was quite frank about it. But she also went to English classes and studied hard whenever she could hoping that one day she would get a job in a proper office with a table and chair. Yes, that was her dream. To get a table and chair with a nameplate stating her name and designation.
Along with her studies, Shivani was also involved in spreading information about AIDS and HIV in certain localities. She was involved in distribution of condoms and advocating safe sex and along with that, she would always have the time to whip up amazing meals. I particularly enjoyed the aloo sabji she made for me once.
Last when I spoke to her, she told me that she had completed two years of college now and was gearing up for the final year.
What Tina Di shared with me
Tina Di is a very fashionable woman. Tottering high heels, skinny jeans, a long kurta and a dash of kajal is her favourite look. When I first met her, I was completely tongue-tied. Do I call her he or she? You see, Tina Di belonged to the transgender community. After half an hour of sitting quietly in the corner, I mustered the courage to speak to her. I frankly told her my confusion and she burst into peals of laughter. Tina told me it was completely upto me. She didn’t mind what I called her and smiling she want about her business at the counseling centre. Di worked as a full time employee at this particularly centre that worked for the LGBT and the transgender community. She had a sharp wit and warm smile that made you feel so welcome.
One important lesson that she taught was that sometimes all people wanted was a little respect and some friendly conversation. And this is one lesson that has held me in good stead. When I was travelling to Solapur in a train, my fellow companions were from the transgender community. I was looked a little menacing to me and at first I decided to ignore them completely. But then, I remember Tina Di’s words and decided to strike a conversation. I must tell you that was the most fun journey that I have ever had in my life. We exchanged stories, sang some songs and had the time of our lives.
Sneha has been in the trade for as long she can remember. But there is one thing she is particularly grateful for is her beautiful daughter who she adopted many years ago. The baby was found abandoned near her house and everybody was too scared to go to the police. Something in her made her decide that she wanted to take care of this child. Sneha never believed that she could change her present but she the least she could do is brighten this child’s future.
She put her daughter through school and college and when the time came got her married to a wonderful young man. And that is one thing that makes her beam with pride. Her wonderful daughter gave her the strength to start working for the community and help out the women who were forced to be here against their will. Sneha currently is a part of a Community Based Organization in Mumbai and actively works with the children of women in prostitution to ensure that they have a future just like her baby girl did.
These are just three of the many inspiring stories that I have come across during my short internship with Aastha Parivaar, an organization that does wonderful work at the grassroots level. For me, each and every one of these women who are contributing for the cause are #madeofgreat. They don’t demand credit, they are not looking for awards, all they want is that their sisters get an opportunity to live life fully and with some dignity and respect.