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A struggle in search of dignity

11 January 2012

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The Hindu, 11 January 2012

Meena Saraswathi Seshu tells the story of how sex workers from Sangli, Maharashtra enacted their journey of organising into a collective

It may seem like an ’out of body’ experience to see yourself on stage but that’s what ‘Hum Aur Tum Sab’, a unique play based on the journey of a collective of sex workers, does to all its actors.

Performed at the Deshpande Smruti Mahotsav, a 25-year-old Marathi theatre festival by the Awishkar group in Mumbai last week, the play adopts a novel approach as its actors enact the real-life roles they had in the journey of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP) to collective organisation.

VAMP is a group of over 5,000 women in sex work and is active in six districts of Karnataka and Maharashtra, with its headquarters at Sangli.

‘Hum Aur Tum Sab’, the only Hindi play in the festival, is an hour-long theatrical production about their beginnings, of their struggle to be treated as human and their journey of coming together and organising - as sex workers - for their dignity and respect.

“Women in sex work are also a part of society. But people do not understand it, and often curse them and their children. Earlier we used to face harassment and injustice from gundas. Police too would not talk to us properly. But, today even political leaders talk to us respectfully and inquire about our problems,” said Kamalabai, who has been associated with VAMP for the past 15 years.

It was in the context of the AIDS pandemic in 1992 that Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) a women’s rights NGO, decided to speak to women in sex worker about HIV and condom-use. During these initial interventions in Gokulnagar, a red light district in Sangli, a man repeatedly raped and finally murdered a sex worker. Nobody protested.

Police and civil society completely ignored the crime - the murder was not even recorded in the police station. The newspapers reported the incident in the `police diary’ section as a small news item. This shocking incident and the helplessness of the women to resist such violence brought home the fact that violence against women in prostitution was a serious threat, and one that was being ignored by feminists, activists, the State and society in Sangli.

SANGRAM decided to organise and build a community-based organisation of sex workers to give them a voice and build collective responses in such situations. Initially, it was difficult to build a concept of community in the highly competitive atmosphere of sex work. None of the gharwalis (“Madams”) would come to any of the meetings SANGRAM organised.

Wary of health interventions because most initiatives had stigmatized them as vectors of HIV, or urged them to take steps to protect others from HIV infection, SANGRAM took the approach of telling women about protecting themselves. Very gradually, the women gained interest in how they could benefit from collectivizing. Gradually they connected to form VAMP to fight for their rights.

In March 2003, Point of View, an NGO from Mumbai and SANGRAM held a five-day workshop for 75 sex workers and their teenage children. The workshop introduced participants to the basics of theatre and performance: acting, voice, sets, costumes, music etc. The workshop culminated in a 60-minute performance scripted, enacted and technically produced by the participants. It focused on issues that they wanted to raise: discrimination faced by them and their children, violence within the sex industry, police raids, among others. The workshop also helped shortlist 30 performers for a formal theatre production, and was the genesis of the hugely popular ‘My mother, the gharwali, her malik, his wife’ a 70-minute production directed by Sushama Deshpande.

While the earlier play peeped into 24-hours of gulli life as people in sex work, Hum aur Tum Sab narrates the journey of a collective, claiming the right to self worth, dignity and livelihood. “The rest of the society hardly believes in this empowerment. Through this play, we are trying to put forth the facts of our life and our organisation. It will change the attitude of society towards us,” says Shabana Gavandi, general secretary, VAMP, who had worked in Kamathipura and Nipani.

(The author is General Secretary of SANGRAM)

P.S.

The above material from The Hindu is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use