Most of the 15 million sex workers in India live an isolated life, full of violence and dejection. But they have been given a voice and identity by a recently-founded newspaper. It has been welcomed by many but has also met with harsh reactions.
An Indian sexworker takes a condom from a volunteer -- there are an estimated 15 million sex workers in India
In India there are presently about 15 million women and girls in prostitution, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. Many of them were kidnapped or lured away from rural villages and brought to brothels in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata. Often they are isolated, silenced and rejected by society. But some are no longer mute. A recently-founded publication gives them a voice: The "Red Light Dispatch" is India’s first newsmagazine for sex-workers.
It is published exclusively by sex-workers out of an office located in a Mumbai brothel. The monthly carries first-person accounts of violence and harassment in the lives of commercial sex-workers, but also poems and essays.
"I was raped by many men every day. I hate the people who brought me and pushed me into this as much as I hate the men who were my clients. Why can’t the government, the police and the society not put an end to all this. Why do you have to suffer like this if you are a woman. Why are those who make us suffer not punished?"
Meena Sheikh, who wrote these lines, was 11 or 12 years old when she was kidnapped from home and brought to a brothel in India’s state of Bihar. Her account in "Red Light Dispatch" is typical.
Sold and Trafficked for Prostitution: Village Girls
"The demand-and-supply chain starts in the poor villages of Nepal, Bangladesh and India and ends in the brothels of Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata", says journalist Ruchira Gupta. She explains that the business of human trafficking starts with a local village procurer, who can be an uncle, a brother, or someone known to the parents. He would promise them a job in a big city or a marriage, and buy the girls for some 15, 20 dollars from the parents. A middleman in a bigger city would then take 4 or 5 girls together to the border.
Corrupt guards on the borders smuggle girls and women into India. Transporters then deliver them to brothels, where they are often kept in slave-like conditions. "They are exploited, raped, they are kept locked up in small rooms where they have no fresh air, where there are barred windows" , Ruchira Gupta describes. Four or five beds are stuck inside small rooms. And the children are playing on the floor while the women have to entertain the buyers with prostituted sex. They are starved, isolated, they have no access to medical care. The clients pass on all kinds of diseases to them, and are also very very violent with them. Many of the women die by the time they are 30 or 35.
Self Help and a Sense of Identity
Ruchira Gupta produced a film about women who had been trafficked into prostitution and decided to do more to combat the phenomenon. Seven years ago she founded an organisation called Apne Aap, or Self Help. The NGO sets up self-help groups, provides vocational training, adult literacy courses and legal protection.
"Red Light Dispatch" is one of Gupta’s latest initiatives. She explains that Indian society excludes women in prostitution and that newspapers often portray them in a negative, stereotyped manner, if at all. Her idea was to give women and girls, such as Meena Sheikh, a voice, make them feel part of the community.
The reaction has been positive: ": "The women said they’ve been given a sense of identity, the activist says. "Suddenly what they were writing was important enough to be published. Suddenly they had a by-line. And their identity which had been negated again and again in the red light areas and the brothels, was suddenly not negated. They loved that. They kept looking at the newspaper and said this is my name and what I am saying is actually important enough to be written about".
Punishment of sex-buyers
One of the recent issues of the magazine discusses the punishment of buyers of sex. The general impression ís that sex-trafficking will end if buyers are punished. This has created uproar among men.
Many women who dare say no to exploitation have been beaten and tortured by pimps and clients. Tinku Khanna, a social worker who works in Bihar’s red light districts, explains that women need a protective structure, such as Apne Aap provides. Supported by the NGO, the women have decided to fight on, Khanna says. She assumes that one of their motivations is the inspiration to leave a life with dignity: "that is something which gives them strength". And what keeps them going is the sisterhood among the women: "the community, the get- togethers, and the fun they have together".
About 1,000 free copies of Red Light Dispatch have been distributed in India’s red light districts. On top of that, the magazine is sent to some 1,500 journalists, lawyers, academics and members of international organisations. The magazine, which comes out in Hindi, Bengali and English, is produced at a very low cost. It hopes to receive independent funding so it can register and increase circulation. In the future, she would like to publish photos, says Gupta. Having given women a voice, Red Light Dispatch hopes also to give them a face.
For more information about the work of Apne Aap and the "Red Light Dispatch" please write to firstname.lastname@example.org