x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Magazine tells inside story of life in the brothels

Unique periodical carries poems and stories by prostitutes, many of whom are illiterate but are working as journalists.

KOLKATA // In the evening, Rita Lama wears bright makeup and colourful clothing and stands in front of her room at a brothel in Kolkata where she works as a prostitute. But at noon each day, after having worked until the early hours of the morning, the 27-year-old quietly leaves her small, windowless room, wearing a neat suit with her head covered in a long shawl to pursue her dream.

As soon as she enters the office of Aapne Aap Worldwide (AAWW, or Women on Their Own), Ms Lama, who has been a prostitute for more than a decade after being smuggled into the country from her home in Nepal, starts work as a reporter for Red Light Despatch, a news magazine offering a snapshot of India's notorious brothels. The magazine, which is published in both English and Hindi editions, also carries poems and stories by prostitutes. They tell of their dreams and give personal accounts of torture and beatings.

"For our publication I report from where I live. I have good relationships with the girls and I bring good stories from them," she said. "Before I joined this publication I was an ordinary sex worker, looked down upon by society. But now I am called to meetings in big offices to discuss our problems, and respected officials appreciate my work." Ms Lama has never been to school, but that has not held her back. She is being trained by AAWW staff and is "very smart", according to Mita Sharma, a former prostitute and writer who is mentoring Ms Lama and a dozen other illiterate prostitute reporters.

"I have taught her the Bengali and English alphabets recently. She cannot form a sentence as yet. But she brings very interesting stories from deep in the brothel," Ms Sharma said. "Fearing the pimps and their musclemen, most girls cannot stay in direct touch with our organisation and newspaper. But many among them eagerly want to get stories of their lives, their sufferings, struggles and dreams published. Rita and other reporters act as excellent bridges for us to get those moving stories for our newspaper."

The Despatch was launched in 2006 by former journalists who left their jobs to be part of the movement against the trafficking of young girls. Priyanka, another New Delhi-based Despatch reporter, said she left prostitution two years ago after the magazine began paying her. "Activists educated me in a non-formal school for five years and now I can write stories on my own. It [Despatch] has helped me walk out of prostitution," she said.

AAWW was founded in 2000 to help stop trafficking of mostly under-aged girls and address problems faced by those trapped in prostitution. "Sex workers ? are considered the lowest form of humanity. Almost no one knows about the reality of their lives, how they land in brothels and how they live there. We launched the Red Light Despatch with a hope to empower these traditionally underprivileged women by offering them a voice," said Mumbai-based Anurag Chaturvedi, the founding editor of the magazine and a campaigner for sex workers' rights.

"Its broader aim is to increase awareness among vulnerable young girls, their relatives and, most important, the sex workers. It can in turn ensure that no innocent girl is trafficked and no sex worker is exploited or victimised by pimps or other cheats." Ruchira Gupta, the executive director of AAWW and another founding editor of the magazine, said: "Very often reporting about children and women in red-light areas is voyeuristic or judgemental. It is by people from 'outside' writing about the 'inside'.

"The Despatch is attempting to reverse the process. The Despatch will give an opportunity for women in prostitution to express their feelings and what they think about the 'outside' world, sitting in their 'inside' world." About 10,000 copies of the Despatch are published in English and Hindi. It will soon be published in Bengali and other regional languages to meet demand of the prostitutes. While most of the Hindi copies are distributed free to prostitutes in New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata, English copies are intended for government officials and NGOs here and abroad.

Since most of the prostitutes are illiterate, AAWW arranges reading sessions of the latest copies in its offices for them. Volunteers visit brothels and read to the women. The magazine has makeshift newsrooms in brothels in Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, where activists and prostitutes discuss stories, headlines and design. Ms Lama said that since she got involved with the magazine her life has changed. "When I first heard about this, I couldn't understand why anyone forced into prostitution would want to share her experiences. But then someone in my brothel read out some stories to me and I realised we all shared a common bond.

"The stories moved me to tears. I made up my mind to write for the magazine. One reporter I met in the brothel encouraged me and took me to the office of the Despatch, and that day my life began changing. "I know I shall soon be able to take myself out of this hellhole." aziz@thenational.ae