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Sold For 2 Lakhs When She Was Only 10: The Story Of A Sex Worker 25 Years Later

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By Antara Sengupta for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Editor’s note: For decades, sex workers in India have been pushed to the margins, forced to deal with shame and stigma from society. ‘Unheard Stories’ is a series of six stories by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with 101 Reporters that aims to bring these narratives to the fore, to build a more inclusive and accepting society.


“I did not know what a red light district was, or that Mumbai would have so many of them. I didn’t know about sex or that sex trade is the most prevalent in these parts,” says Nirmala Singh of the time she was a 10-year-old. This was the age at which she was brought to Kamathipura in Mumbai from her native village in UP with a promise of a job as a domestic help. The ‘concerned’ neighbourhood lady who sold her for 2 lakhs to a brothel disappeared after dropping her off, saying that Nirmala needed to be there for 3 months only.

Those three months were in fact, three years. And were no less than hell for Singh. “If I protested or put up a fight, I would be beaten and abused by the gharwali (brothel keeper). I couldn’t make friends with any other girl there in my mental state. I couldn’t venture out of my room. Many times, customers would beat me if I did not agree to do what they wanted,” recalls Singh. “I realised soon there was no point resisting, nothing would come out of it. That’s when I decided to hone my skills and do the trade well.”

Dressed in khaki-coloured jeans and a body-hugging purple t-shirt, today, the 35-year-old Nirmala speaking to Youth Ki Awaaz has lived a long and turmoil-ridden life. Her present home in central Mumbai is a tiny room that can hold just about four beds. The beds are separated by flimsy curtains which give four sex workers – one of them Singh – a sense of privacy when they are engaged with their customers.

Past her prime, she is one of the many middle-aged women who work hard to get the two or three clients a day – to earn their daily bread, as well as to pay the gharwali.

Singh works from 9 a.m. till midnight. Several times she literally has to fight with the other girls to snatch a customer. That’s mostly because, as she says, customers want young, slim, fair girls with long hair. And she, on top of everything else, has a squint – a major disadvantage in her line of work.

And so, she hardly ends up with five customers a day.

“If you earn less, you get an earful from the gharwali,” she tells us. “My share of the money also goes down. Sometimes, customers leave without paying. So, I make sure they pay before the act,” explains Singh. But that’s not the biggest fear. Getting caught by the police is. “If you get caught by the police, you’ve to pay at least ₹1,500 to get out of the fix. Sometimes, you don’t even earn that much money,” she adds.

Even on her luckiest day, she doesn’t make ₹1,500. There are girls as young as 15 in her line of work. “They are who the clients want, and they are the ones who get the money they demand,” says Singh.

An Empty Attempt At A Better Life

While still in her prime, Nirmala started saving money to consult a physician who could fix her squint. The years went by. She moved out of the four beds in a room arrangement, to a two-bed one with a friend. The two divided the expenses. She saw a doctor who suggested an operation to correct the squint. Doctors operated on her eye twice. The first attempt almost left her blind.

The next few years were pretty tumultuous. Her friend was rescued, and she was left alone, with little money. So, she returned to the old room with four beds. The second operation on her eye was performed a few years ago. Now, she can see better. All in all, she shelled out ₹40,000 for the two operations and is in debt.

Back when her three-year term had come to an end, she was set free by the brothel keeper. She returned home. It was a different world. No money, no food, no one to talk to. Her father was still jobless, and ageing. The decision was made. Live in poverty and die, or return to Kamathipura, for a second inning.

“I returned, and took up a bed with four other girls. I’ve been here since except for a break. This place is free of pimps. The customers walk in on their own,” she says.


About the author: Antara Sengupta is a Mumbai-based independent reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. She has worked with CNBC, Hindustan Times and is currently with the Observer Research Foundation.

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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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