By Swati Saxena
Friday, November 30, 2007
Ruchira Gupta and Anurag Chaturvedi started the Red Light Despatch--by and for sex workers in India's booming brothels--to help contributors network and understand their rights. Fifth in a series on the changing role of women in India.
MUMBAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--"My dream is one house, with lots of sky and stars. My dream is to own a boutique so that I can also make money so that I can build a house where my mother, father, brothers and sisters can stay. In my house there will be a fridge and a TV . . . I want everyone in my house to live comfortably. Every child will have enough toys. And for me . . . an aquarium that is full of colored fish."
This is the dream of a 14-year-old called Shabana, who lives in a red light area in the city of Kolkata, India, and is the daughter of a prostitute.
Her dream was printed in the Red Light Despatch, a monthly publication written by and for prostitutes and their relatives.
Along with personal stories and poems, the Despatch covers human trafficking, sex-worker advocacy pieces and current events that relate to the women. Stories range from a doctor's column on HIV-AIDS to tales of a young woman sold into a brothel; the current issue is focused on women who could leave prostitution behind.
"We train them on basic things like what is a headline, what is a lead," co-editor Anurag Chaturvedi says. "Apart from that, a lot of these women have suffered extreme violence. There are premenstrual girls who have been locked up and raped repeatedly. This degree of violence makes these women lose their power of retention. It's like they blur out certain memories and their stories often have great blanks that need to be gradually brought out."
Chaturvedi co-edits the Red Light Despatch with Ruchira Gupta, a friend since 1987.
The duo--who Gupta says share the "same socialist visions of how society should be"-- started the Despatch in October 2006 in Kamathipura, a Mumbai neighborhood with small, cramped houses that serve as brothels. It is one of the largest red-light districts in India with approximately 22,000 sex worker residents, and was founded by the British to service their soldiers about 300 years back.
Gupta and Chaturvedi felt media coverage dehumanized the sex workers. "Either they were sexualized, beautiful bodies, or they were pictured as victims," Gupta says. "It was a view of an outsider looking in. We wanted to present an inside-out view."
In 1995, Gupta--a freelancer who worked for Indian dailies and the BBC--was producing a story in the villages of Nepal where she noticed a scarcity of women between 15 and 45. Sheepish villagers told her they had all gone to Mumbai.
"That is when I came face to face with the reality of prostitution," says Gupta. "There is an entire supply chain that includes the local village procurer, the pimp, the brothel manager, and the moneylender and so on. It's like 19th century slavery."
With BBC support Gupta went on to make a documentary about India's sex workers, who number about 2.3 million. "The Selling of Innocents" won several awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism in 1997.
After the release of the documentary, Gupta found that she was not ready to move on.
"I spent 18 months with the women in the red light area of Mumbai," says Gupta. "The women asked me, 'You will get the film, but what will we get?'"
In 1997 she started Apne Aap Women Worldwide to organize them, opening an office in Kamathipura. Apne Aap--"By Myself" in Hindi--started with 22 members and today boasts 5,200 members in six centers of prostitution across four states and is now headquartered in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. The advocacy group is supported by United Nations agencies and receives national and state government assistance, providing a small budget for the Red Light Despatch.
Acting on the idea that sex workers should learn more about the outside world, Apne Aap in Mumbai started holding weekly meetings to read newspapers and discuss issues but attendance was low, Gupta says, because the mainstream media covered little of interest to the group. So the idea for the Despatch arose to tap into the women's everyday concerns.
"If policymakers and other government officials read this paper, it would give them a perspective on issues that are relevant to women in prostitution," says Gupta. "For example, the government focuses so much on distribution of condoms to prostitutes; while this is important, there are even bigger problems like access to good schools and clean toilets."
In addition to running the Despatch, Apne Aap provides a number of programs, including a group for female teens called Kishori Mandal about how to avoid being trafficked.
It also arranges vocational training classes such as sewing, computers and spoken English.
Shabana, the teen who dreams of a house and a fridge and her own boutique, is currently doing a course on embroidery, cutting and sewing.
"I do not know if Shabana will achieve her dream," says co-editor Chaturvedi. "But then again, I have also not achieved all my dreams. What is important is that she has been able to get to a point where she can have this dream."
Despatch contributors meet once a month to come up with story ideas, which the editors trim down. Then the person who suggested the story writes it out, or if she is illiterate, speaks it out to a staff member.
Gupta designs the paper and sends it electronically to Apne Aap's centers, where it is printed, read out and discussed. It is also sent to journalists, policy-makers, advocacy groups and government officials. Red Light Despatch is published in English and Hindi and Gupta says that it reaches about 10,000 people a month.
While Gupta provides editorial leadership Chaturvedi, a Mumbai news reporter for SBS, a Melbourne, Australia, radio station, provides broad support. He joined Apne Aap in 2002 as a trustee.
Initially, Chaturvedi--who had spent almost three decades working for such media outlets as BBC Radio's Hindi Service and major Hindi papers--only knew about prostitution through films, novels and poetry. It was only later--through his work in Apne Aap and on the paper--that he began to understand what the women face.
On average, he estimates the women earn between 100 and 500 rupees--$2.50 to $13--per day, and they only earn till they are about 30 years old.
"You live in a 5-feet-by-6-feet room that is just big enough to fit a small bed," he says. "In that small space you gather your whole world; you keep your God, your makeup, you deliver your children here, and you service the client while your child plays on the floor. The reality inside these brothels is that you are poor and you have been bought and have become a commodity. And every minute, some part of your human dignity is being eroded."
Swati Saxena is a professional freelance writer based out of India. Her work has appeared in national and international publications.
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