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PROSTITUTE: A Daughter, A Mother, A Dreamer, A Woman

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By Khushboo Aggarwal:

‘A Prostitute’; the word evokes similar thoughts in our minds, a woman who gives sexual favours in exchange of materialistic things, one who sells her body for money. But my visit to G.B. Road, a red-light district of Delhi, for an HIV-AIDS awareness campaign redefined the term for me. When a friend of mine asked me to accompany her to G.B. Road to volunteer in the campaign being organized there, initially I was reluctant. The stigma attached to this profession prevented me from outstretching a helping hand. But once I reached there and got an opportunity to interact with the sex workers, my whole outlook changed. The initial feeling of disgust changed into a feeling of sympathy and finally transformed into a sense of responsibility.

Prostitution is legal in India but several activities related to it are not, such as its solicitation in a public place, owning and managing a brothel and pimping, which was done basically in order to prevent commercialization of prostitution. But as we all know, rules are followed more in breach than in spirit. Even though pimping and managing a brothel are crimes, red-light areas keep on coming up in cities and prominent towns and are flourishing by the day, major ones such as Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai and G.B. Road in Delhi have now become centres of sexual tourism with Mumbai being the largest sex industry centre in Asia, housing over two lakh sex workers. The trade has rose to such an extent, that girls from Nepal and Bangladesh as young as twelve years of age are being trafficked in India and pushed into this profession. By the time they reach their twenties they are part of a vicious circle from which they find no way out.

In Vedic times, ‘nagarvadhu’ tradition was followed in India. ‘Nagarvadhus’ and courtesans enjoyed a high social status and were respected in all social circles. But with the entry of the Europeans, the terms like ‘nagarvadhus’ and ‘devdasis’ came to be associated with the word ‘prostitute’ and decline in the power of royal households of India led to a further decline in their status and position. Now, a time has come when the stigma attached to the profession of sex workers has increased to the extent that they are left to live in pitiable conditions. Those narrow lanes, old buildings and small rooms become their universe and their tiny make-up boxes the most important thing in their lives.

Some women are pushed into flesh trade by their own families for the want of money, some others are there because they were given fake promises of marriage by a lover or given a promise of employment by someone who left them in a brothel while others were deserted by their husbands or disowned by their families and had no other way to sustain themselves. Since most of them are uneducated or rather illiterate, they do not even know how to keep a proper track of their earnings. The women working under the ‘chukri’ system, a system of bonded labour to pay off a debt, are the worst hit as they cannot even calculate when their debt is paid off and they are free to leave. One major threat caused due to their lack of education and awareness is that of them engaging in unprotected sex with clients and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Around fifty percent of the sex workers in Mumbai and forty three percent in Kolkata are HIV positive. Awareness programs, though now being undertaken by various NGOs, are difficult to carry out as these women are closely guarded by their pimps and handlers and are difficult to reach.

Life for them is hard. These sex workers face continuous harassment and abuse not just from their clients but also from the hands of the brothel managers and pimps. Even though ‘The Immoral Traffic(Prevention) Act, 1986’ renders these activities as illegal, still the police and administration turn a blind eye towards the plight of these women. If they are to be believed, they are rounded up frequently by the police and taken to the police station only to face further harassment.

Help is now being offered from various fronts but sometimes even that is not welcome. A sex worker who was sent over to her village in West Bengal to visit her parents by an NGO came never to go back again. The economic condition in her village is so poor that people pleaded her to take their daughters back to the city with her and get them employed in the “factory” she worked at. She found it better to snap all ties with her family rather than pushing those girls into the same well. But the gloomiest part of their lives is seeing their children, their daughters also getting trapped in this poisonous web in which they have been trapped into all their lives. Most of the children born in brothels end up working there, leading the same lives as their mothers. Their only way out is education but, as I was informed by one such girl’s mother, even that is hard to achieve. As it turns out, father’s name, even though not a part of the government’s ambitious ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’, is a necessary condition which most schools demand in order to give admission to the children of sex workers. Despite the problems they face, the bright light in the eyes of these children ignite a ray of hope in my heart as well that unlike their mothers, they will find their way out of those narrow lanes.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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