(This article was originally published on 9 February 2020. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark International Sex Workers Day.)
“My mother was a devadasi, which was quite common back in the day. Today, she works in Kamathipura red light area in Mumbai,” ‘”I was sexually abused and gang raped for 6 years,” “Home is a state of mind, not a place; because then I would be homeless,” “There was sexual abuse at home and then bullying at school.”
Stories shared by daughters of sex workers in Mumbai’s red light district all begin with a broken home, an abusive father, and the stigma of being a sex workers’ daughter. They were repeatedly told they weren’t good enough for anything but sex work.
However, this isn’t how all their stories end.
The Quint spoke to Robin Chaurasiya, co-founder of Mumbai-based NGO Kranti, that tries to empower women from the city’s red light area to become agents of social change.
Today, many of these women are strong, independent and are chasing their dreams. How did this change come about?
Believing in Therapy
Most of them had grown up in a brothel or hostel with step-fathers who showed them no affection. Twenty-two-year-old Ashwini ran away from home a few years ago. Growing up in a hostel, she wasn’t very attached to her mother and wanted a taste of freedom.
“I ran away from my hostel and before this, I had never travelled alone. I had never stepped out of home. Never crossed the road, even. So it was difficult,” she said.
It was then, she says, that she discovered the world to be very kind. “How people are taking you into their homes with open hearts and kindness was lovely,” she said.
Twenty-three-year-old Tanya ran away from home when she found out the man who was living with them wasn’t her ‘real’ father and she couldn’t stand the abuse any longer.
Nearly all the women’s childhood was fraught with fear and hurt. “My childhood was daunting and terrifying and I am overcoming that through therapy. But there still is a lot of trauma,” said 21-year-old Sandhya.
They still have to deal with their trauma but they aren’t running away anymore – which they attribute to Robin.
Meet Their Role Model – Robin
From Indore, Robin Chaurasiya was born and brought up in the United States. She completed her graduation in Psychology and Political Science, and served as a Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. She also holds a post graduate degree in Gender Studies. She then established Kranti in Mumbai.
Today, she works with around 30 women who are survivors of trafficking and daughters of sex workers. She was recently felicitated with the Franco-German prize for being a human rights defender by the French and German consulates in India.
Robin put forth the hesitance of NGOs and well-wishers from taking the responsibility of teenagers who’ve been exposed to a life such as this.
“Everyone has this ideal sense that if you get kids young, then you can take care of them and train them in a particular way from a young age. You can stick them in a mainstream school and then they’ll be on their path academically. But after these girls finish 12th grade, the caretakers don’t know what to do with them,” she told The Quint.
“So, either the caretakers help them go on with higher studies, which I’ve never seen in my life, or they will kick them out. These girls then may get a job or in many cases run off with their boyfriends and get married. Or in the worst case go back to their community to do sex work.”Robin Chaurasiaya
And so, Kranti began with that sole motive. Robin thinks therapy crucial to help them overcome their trauma.
Lesson 1 in Therapy: Acceptance
The first lesson the women were taught was self-acceptance.Tanya discussed how tired she was of asking people to “accept us as we are. Look at me as a normal person. Treat me just like everybody else.”
Jayashree, who used to feel ashamed of what her mother did for a living, learned to not feel guilt or shame.
The women were asked to approach their mothers’ entry into this profession with understanding, take pride in them having earned enough to give them a good life in spite of all odds, and taught that their parents don’t define who they are.
“The society has created a stigma, a label that our mothers are just sex workers. No one sees them as humans – as a mother, as a sister, as a wife.”Sandhya, Student, Ashoka University
Sandhya is tired of the labels and now thinks that she is entitled to the benefits others enjoy as well.
“It’s not that where I’ve been brought up is unsafe or abnormal. Because the society outside my community was abnormal for me,” she added. Today, with therapy, these women can speak openly about their childhood and family struggles that they had kept bottled up for years.
Lesson 2 in Therapy: Theatre
Today, the Krantikaris are known across the world for their street play, ‘Lal Batti Express’ (Red Light Express). The play is not simply a presentation but is interactive and based on real-life experiences.
Each tells her story out loud. They’ve been performing the play for over five years now and it’s never the same. They’ve staged the play across the world, including at Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The girls performed in Chennai recently, in January, as part of an event by The Kindness Project. The founder of the project, Mahima Poddar said by offering insights into the families of sex workers, the girls explain to the audience what it means to be a part of a sex worker’s family.
“This is a diaspora which seems to be ostracised and discriminated against because people don’t know they have a story and don’t believe there is a story. We wanted to expand people’s idea of inclusiveness and also make the public understand the lives of these girls.”Mahima Poddar, Founder, The Kindness Project
They say the stage has played a huge role in building their confidence. Beyond acceptance and facing the realities of the world, the women said that sometimes they want to escape and feel free, which is what theatre is all about.
All of them want to continue to explore different ways of storytelling using theatre, so as to tell the world their tale of hardship as well as joy.
A few women write poetry as well.
Lesson 3 in Therapy: Getting Ready to Take On the World
According to Robin, one of the biggest challenges faced by the women who were in the process of getting over their trauma was the question of ‘What next?’.
At Kranti, the women are told that their ambitions needn’t be limited to becoming a doctor, teacher or an engineer. And thus, today, Jayashree wants to open a school for children of sex workers in the red light area. Robin emphasised the need to teach the women street-smartness.
“These kids have been locked up their entire childhood. It’s not like they know how to travel by train, it's not like anyone told them how to find housing, how to give a job interview, how to get a job... At this age, when they are made to get out of their homes, they don’t really know how to be on their own,” Robin said.
Many women are studying in reputed educational institutions on full scholarship, working at top MNCs, and one has got admission to a university in New York.
Jayashree recently won the award for Exceptional Woman of Excellence at the Women's Economic Forum 2020, where she delivered multiple speeches on how yoga and spirituality helped her heal from her trauma. “Life is our biggest mentor. It’s a mentor everyone has. We just need to be willing to learn,” she said at the event.
They attribute their success and joy to therapy and want to tell the world not to shy away from it, as even one session can change your life.
“They have tremendous capacity to change the world. It starts with each one of us individually but look at the impact all of us can have around the world.”Robin Chaurasiya