Jayamma Bhandari was orphaned at the age of three and spend her childhood in grim poverty. She was forced into the sex trade by her husband. But unlike other victims who are forced into the murky business, she decided to challenge her destiny -- becoming, in the process, an inspiration for many other women like her.
Now 40-years-old, Jayamma runs the Chaitanya Mahila Mandali (CMM) to help sex workers leave the exploitative profession and find respectable livelihoods. CMM works in high-risk slum communities to raise awareness on sexual rights and reproductive health, and takes up skilling and livelihood courses.
According to the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), there are 1.65 million registered sex workers in the country -- the actual numbers would be much higher -- who lead very sordid lives. Though they are not in the profession by choice, they have to bear the stigma associated with it, feeling ostracised, alone, unwanted and disposable. There are the ramifications of the exposure to various sexually transmitted diseases too.
Jayamma is credited with directly impacting the lives of some 5,000 women in sex work and nearly a thousand of them are now engaged in alternative livelihoods. Also, over 3,500 children of sex workers have been provided vocational training through her efforts.
Fondly called "Amma", or mother, her efforts were acknowledged by the government and she received the Nari Shakti (Women Power) Award on International Women's Day last month. Earlier, the Confederation of Indian Industry conferred her with the Exemplar Award in 2017
Jayamma grew up in her uncle's home in Nakrakal in Nalgonda district, about 300 km from Hyderabad. After a tough childhood and a difficult adolescence, she was married to a man in Hyderabad who, soon after she had a baby, started pressurising her to join the flesh trade.
Her refusal led to her being tortured, both physically and mentally. With minimal education and no one to support her, she succumbed to the wishes of her husband.
Selling not only her body, but also her soul, Jayamma toyed with the idea of suicide many times. But the thought of what would happen to her daughter after her death -- that she too could be pushed into the same trade -- gave Jayamma the strength to go on.
For Jayamma, it was a meeting Jai Singh Thomas, an NGO executive from Hyderabad, that proved a turning point. He encouraged her to leave sex work and do advocacy for the community. With Thomas' help, she decided to set up an organisation that would enable sex workers to find viable alternative professions. Thus began her journey as a change agent.
Now Jayamma -- who finally mustered the courage to part ways with her husband in 2012 -- and her organisation reach out to victims like her, counsel and try to convince them that there can be a better ways to lead their lives.
"It's really a daunting task to convince them as some of these women have become addicted to alcohol, drugs, smoking, sex and living in that vitiating environment," says Jayamma.
"They have many questions: Will they be able to earn enough to support themselves and their kids? Won't their situation be more miserable if the world doesn't accept them due to their past?
"We have the challenge to win their confidence and persuade them by offering help and support. Forcible rehabilitation doesn't work in such cases and, as such, de-addiction, counselling, and slow, long-term therapy become necessary to restore their lives," she said.
The tragic life of sex workers is not limited to them -- children born to such women are bigger victims. Being vulnerable, they usually end up finding themselves trapped in this or allied professions.
Hyderabad has no designated red-light area, and sex workers go out and solicit clients. They usually take their children along as they have nowhere to go. The sight of their children sometimes getting abused in front of them is disheartening for these mothers.
Jayamma thus felt that working to prevent the victimisation of children of sex workers was important. She set up Chaithanya (meaning awareness) Happy Home in 2011 where children of sex workers are provided with all basic necessities of life -- food, access to education, life skills and a safe roof.
CMM not only rehabilitates the children but also carries out routine follow-ups to check whether they are safe. The initiative today has 43 such children with big dreams of becoming teachers, engineers and doctors.
With the aim of changing societal attitudes stigmatising sex workers -- and with the belief in building a system equipped and sensitive to address the issue of trafficking -- Chaithanya also conducts sensitisation training for police officers in Telangana.
On being asked whether sex work should be legalised in India, Jayamma said a firm "no". "First the law needs to be in place. Policymakers, police and activists need continuous sensitisation on this issue."
Prostitution itself is not illegal in India, but soliciting and living off the earnings of a prostitute are. And the law is open to a lot of misinterpretation and manipulation by the police and pimps.
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Mamta Aggarwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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