x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sex workers get chance to change their lives

The Sahayog Mahila Mandal or Women's Co-operative Organisation, is a self-help group run by former prostitutes that works to rehabilitate sex workers in Surat.

Rehabilitated sex workers take part in an educational programme in the red light district of Kalighat in Kolkata.
Rehabilitated sex workers take part in an educational programme in the red light district of Kalighat in Kolkata.

KOLKATA // As a massive drought in 2001 brought financial misery to many villages in southern Maharastra state, Sharad Kolhe, a farmer in Yavatmal district, knew he would not be able to afford his daughter Usha's marriage, and sent her, at 22, to live with his son in Gujarat, hoping that she would have a brighter future there. But Usha's brother, an industrial labourer living with his wife and three children in a Surat slum, could barely afford to take care of her, and Usha was left to find her own way.

"When I came to my brother's house I thought he would help me fulfil my dream of getting married and having a family of my own. But since I had to fend for myself, I ended up joining the filthiest profession and I knew no one would ever marry me, since I was a sex worker," she said. But with the help of a nongovernmental organisation that works with prostitutes helping them to leave the profession and reintegrate into society, Usha was finally able to fulfil her dream.

"I have settled with the man I wanted and have managed to leave the profession I hated," Usha, now 30, said in an interview this week. "I fell in love with him and it was reciprocated. Because of the nature of my profession I was hesitant to ask him if he would marry me. But after some Sahayog activists spoke to him, one day he proposed marriage and the dream came true ? I shall always remain grateful to their service."

The Sahayog Mahila Mandal (SMM), or Women's Co-operative Organisation, is a self-help group run by former prostitutes that works to rehabilitate sex workers in Surat. When Surat's brothels were closed down by the civic authorities in 2003, many of the city's 8,000 prostitutes migrated to brothels in Mumbai and other cities. To monitor and expedite the rehabilitation of the 4,500 sex workers who remained in Surat, the community-based SMM was founded by Paras, or "touch", a volunteer group from the Preventive and Social Medicine department of Surat's New Civil Hospital.

Paras volunteers organised and trained the former prostitutes who have been running the SMM as a self-help group ever since. According to SMM volunteers, after the crackdown on prostitution, the state government could not provide adequate rehabilitation measures, and most of the women from the disbanded brothels chose to stay in their profession, meeting clients in their homes and hotels instead. SMM has had to operate on a shoe-string budget, as it receives limited financial assistance from government agencies.

Usha did not feel comfortable explaining exactly how she met Manish Patel, a diamond polisher, but an SMM activist explained that despite falling in love with Usha, he was hesitant to marry her. "Manish loved Usha, but was vacillating on the issue of marriage, fearing stigmatisation from society since she was a sex worker. But as we met him many times and explained the many positive aspects of such a relationship, gradually he mustered the courage to marry her," said Pankaj Chaudhary, the SMM project officer, who personally took the initiative to "guide" Mr Patel into marriage last year.

Over the past six years, SMM has helped at least 12 former Surat-based prostitutes marry and settle into new lives. "In some cases, to facilitate the marriages of sex workers, we have to make arrangement to place their children in special boarding schools because the potential husbands did not want to take the children with them. We even had to take care of the wedding reception in a few cases, and because we didn't have enough funds, we had to hold them inside our office," said Jayesh Kosambiya, who founded Paras and is associated with more than two dozen NGOs working among Surat's prostitutes.

A former prostitute, Shubhalaxmi, who married a former client, Rakesh, four years ago with the help of Paras and SMM, said that with her marriage she found a "life of respect", apart from managing to escape the "lowly" profession. Neena, 23, also considers herself lucky, as she now has a "nice" husband - with the help of Paras and SMM. "The man I married in the village sold me to a pimp in Mumbai when I was 16. But now from [my new husband] Nilesh I have got everything a woman wants from her husband," said Neena, who had worked as a prostitute in Mumbai and Surat for eight years.

Nilesh, too, said he was "very happy" to have married Neena. According to Mr Chaudhary, Nilesh, who had been Neena's client for some years, said "there couldn't be a more caring wife than Neena". Unsurprisingly, not all of the marriages facilitated by SMM have led to domestic bliss. A former prostitute, Tejal, married Gaurav Desai, an autorickshaw driver who was also a former client, four years ago. But recently, she chose to break her marriage to escape "further exploitation".

"I decided to marry him because I wanted to be out of the sex trade. But I found that I was being pushed further into it. He turned into a pimp and forced me to entertain clients in hotels ? I found that the marriage was pointless and so I decided to break up," Tejal, 27, who has since begun working as a prostitute in Surat again, told SMM's project manager, Meena Menon. Three out of the 12 marriages that have taken place with the help of Paras and SMM have failed, Ms Menon said.

"Some marriages break even in regular cases, in mainstream society. In these three cases, the girls came across some bad guys and the marriages did not work," she said. "A prostitute rarely returns to prostitution if her marriage works or if she gets a well-earning and caring husband,"said Palanisamy Muthupandian, a Chennai-based social worker. Prostitution "is regarded as a vile profession in this society, and very few have the gumption to marry a sex worker," Ms Menon said.

"In consideration of this ground reality, managing to get a dozen of them married over the past few years should not be discounted as a small success." aziz@thenational.ae