Tag Archive for SANGRAM

Rest in power, Sandhya Rao!

sandhya-rao

Meena Seshu and Laxmi Murthy pay tribute to feminist activist Sandhya Rao, who passed away on Saturday in Bangalore

VAMP, Muskan and Sangram pay their respects to a feminist and friend who walked our path gently and firm. She translated, wrote our stories, helped us in research, held our hand and smoked her way through trainings, workshops and more recently as a member on our sexual harassment board. 

She recently called me (Meena) on August 17th about a post on sex work in the feministsindia egroup and had a long chat on feminist conflation of sexual exploitation with sex work rather than the violence and sexual exploitation within sex work. 

This was 10 days back. We will miss her. The Sanghatanas will miss her. “Ask Sandhya / aunty/ madam” was an instinctive response, especially  when we needed any Kannada translation, help and support with a recent sexual harassment issue, documentation help, or sometimes just travelling to Sangli just to hold our hands during difficult times. 

one of the 80’s feminists – a fast-vanishing breed, she was flamboyant and audacious in her political and personal stands, challenging, along the way, marriage, monogamy and heterosexuality

In the late 1970s, when not taking on the husband’s name after marriage was a signifier of a true-blue feminist, she insisted taking on the name of her Muslim-born husband, vigorously fighting with bank managers and sundry babus who were bewildered by her Hindu name, Muslim surname (she later reverted to Rao when she separated from her husband). She could be counted on to take on (with gusto) a range of hardened Hindutva-ites in the family, never losing an opportunity to proselytise, as a hard-boiled atheist.

Starting out with Streelekha and Vimochana in the early 1980s, she went on to set up the Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, a legal rights NGO, constantly travelling to remote corners of Karnataka to conduct legal trainings in Kannada with rural women. About a decade ago, in a move rare in the NGO world where leaders have no retirement age, she handed the reins to the next generation. Of course cursing and swearing, but also feeling that handing over must be inherent to feminist organising. When HHS closed down a few months ago, she was distressed but accepted the inevitability of forms of organising changing and evolving. The last few years she worked mostly with corporations on workplace safety for women, evolving policies, training and guiding ICCs on handling cases of sexual harassment.

Her decision in the early 1990s to pull her two young daughters out of a mainstream school and join hands with individuals attempting experiments of alternate learning were reflective of her conviction that alternatives were possible in every sphere. Her independent and creative daughters Sruti and Shabari, are testimony to feminist mothering when the term was not even in vogue.

She used to declare that she was involved with G and G: Gender and grandchildren. Her three grandchildren gave her infinite delight, and till the end she was able to tell them raucous jokes, teach them Kannada rhymes and make pancakes or pasta. She was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer three months ago, and was determined to deal with it the only way she knew: resist and struggle. She passed away suddenly and peacefully on August 27, 2016, after a day spent with a friend, chatting, eating and having a good time. She was 62.

We are losing too many, too young.

A true feminist. Rest in power, Sandhya! You will be missed.

Sex workers express solidarity with JNU students, demand Azadi from `Goddess’ Durga

Sex-workers-india

Veshya Anyay Mutki Parishad writes to Jawaharlal Nehru University students expressing solidarity with their fight against right-wing orchestrated violence and intimidation

Dear Students of JNU,
Salute! Jai Bhim! Laal salam! We will win this war against sedition! March 3rd, International Sex workers Rights Day, Zindabad!

We write from the sex worker’s rights movement to hail your struggle and to add to the discourse you have sparked. We would like to discuss why using the term sex worker in the alleged pamphlet in JNU on Mahishasura Martydom Day is a concept fraught with the Whore Stigma. The use of the politically correct sex worker instead of the commonly used `prostitute’ does not take away from the fact that it is used to depict an insalubrious deed. The use of this term has only led to more misunderstandings of the term itself.

Sex worker is the term used by the sex worker’s rights movement in order to claim dignity to the work adults do consensually by providing sexual services for money. The sex workers use this term to give dignity to those that exchange sexual services for money but the use here is to supposedly strip the `goddess’ in this instance, of any dignity. The term since then has taken a life of its own. From a politically correct term it is now being used to describe anti-nationals, anti-goddesses even anti- patriarchy! But the thinly veiled contempt for the sex worker is huge in every utterance, from the Hindu Goddess Durga to the `anti-national’ women students in JNU.

It was brought to the nation on Februrary 24, 2016 when an alleged pamphlet issued in JNU to mark Mahishasura Martydom Day, October 2014 was produced in Parliament by Minister for Education Ms. Smriti Irani stating that it contained offensive material regarding the “Durga Puja”— “where a fair skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called “Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning, during sleep.” The pamphlet was issued on “Mahishasura Martyrdom Day” observed by scheduled tribe, scheduled caste, other backward caste and minority students of JNU.

The minister asked for forgiveness from her god to even utter the words as printed in the pamphlet. The use of the politically correct term sex worker and the use of the words like enticed and honeymoon to depict sexual exchange are the reason for the chocked anger of Ms. Irani. Would it have been better for the pamphlet not to have used the term sex worker? Because I cannot see what else the minister could have to ask forgiveness for, a fair skinned woman enticing Mahishasur and killing him is a well-accepted concept among the tribals, whether the woman was Durga is unclear.

Earlier on February 13th Jawahar Yadav, former Officer on Special Duty to the Chief Minister of Haryana In his tweet, Yadav wrote “For the girls who are protesting in JNU, I only have one thing to say that prostitutes who sell their body are better than them because they atleast don’t sell their country”.

Almost after two hours, Yadav wrote a clarification and deleted his previous tweet. In the clarification he said: “No girl has been compared to any prostitute in my previous tweet. Instead I meant that the girls who are forced to enter prostitution are rather better than the girls who were protesting in JNU and raising anti-India slogans, Pakistan Zindabad slogans. The daughters and sisters who are forced to sell their body are better than the girls who were demanding the freedom of Kashmir and Kerala and shouting that their fight will continue till India is destroyed.”

To continue this saga, on 27th February Devdutt Patnaik has written a piece on `How patriarchy makes ‘sex worker’ a term of abuse’ where he explains that, The Goddess as a free woman discomforts many, who cannot bear to see any female, divine or otherwise, in positions of power. His analysis however is very far away from this misleading headline in the Daily O. Devdutt’s simplistic analysis cannot move away from its moral frame of the single woman who has to satisfy `the unsavoury yearnings of men’. Mr. Patnaik also falls into the same trap of having a very interesting analysis but not addressing why the term sex work cannot be used interchangeably with the stigmatising concept of the `prostitute’.

Then on February 29th there is the headline, ‘Threatened and termed a sex worker after Mahishashura debate’: Asianet News editor Sindhu to TNM. Now we move from the alleged JNU pamphlet to the discussion on the Mahishasura Martydom day and all hell breaks loose. The anchor is threatened with life and also called a sex worker.

The mobile number of Sindhu Sooryakumar, the Chief Coordinating Editor of Asianet News, was circulated on WhatsApp allegedly by activists of right wing groups offended by a TV programme where members of Congress, BJP and Left parties debated whether celebrating Mahishasura, a common custom among certain tribes in India, is enough to accuse students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University of “anti-national” activities.

This constant reference to sex work and women in sex work in particular is made to stigmatise and put down the woman it is describing. It is used to depict sleaze, disgust, distaste and revulsion. Mere use of the politically correct term has not taken away the whore stigma attached to the term `prostitute’ if it is used to divide women into the `good and the bad’.

The sex worker rights movement would like to bring to your notice the fact that it is therandi [whore] stigma that pushes sex workers outside the rights framework, effectively cutting them off from privileges and rights supposedly accorded to all citizens irrespective of what they do for a living. Stigmatization, which has its roots in the standards set by patriarchal morality, is experienced as the major factor that prevent sexworkers from accessing their rights. In the real world of sex workers, the lives of women in sex work are particularly held hostage. Stigmatization impacts the lives of women in more ways than one. Some of the rights denied due to discrimination are: freedom from physical and mental abuse; the right to education and information; health care, housing; social security and welfare services to name but a few.

We also demand Azadi!

Azadi from discrimination, azadi from the violence of a judgemental attitude, azadi from the multiplicity of injustice meted out to sex works, Azadi from the loose use of the politically correct but deeply stigmatised use of the term sex worker.Sex workers demand Azadi from `Goddess’ Durga

In solidarity,
Shabana Khazi, Durga Pujari, Kiran Deshmukh, Chanda Vazane, Neelawa Siddereddy, Suvarna Ingalgave, Meenakshi Kamble, Raosaheb More, Sudhir Patil, Aarthi Pai, Meena Saraswathi Seshu.

Veshya Anyay Mutki Parishad

Muskan [ TG and Male sex workers]

SANGRAM.

Why VAMP supports decriminalisation of sex work

sex-workers-rights

Any argument that seeks to define sex work as violence and exploitation forecloses discussion over the rights of people involved in sex work to pursue it as a livelihood. Law enforcement agencies, health authorities and clients often use punitive action to harass sex workers and violate their human rights. Decriminalisation will help sex workers address abusive or sub-standard or unfair working conditions instituted by state and non-state actors

By Meena Saraswathi Seshu and Aarthi Pai

Amnesty International, on 11 August, 2015, voted to recommend the full decriminalization of sex work and prostitution in order to protect the human rights of sex workers.

In the aftermath of Amnesty International’s vote, there has been a huge outcry from anti-sex work groups who contend that this move will legitimise exploitation within the sex trade industry. The critics do not agree that the intention behind Amnesty International’s resolution is to protect the human rights of sex workers and call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.

Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad [VAMP] a collective of women in sex work from western India welcomes the decision taken by Amnesty International. We support Amnesty’s assertion that states have an obligation ‘to reform their laws and develop and implement systems and policies that eliminate discrimination against those engaging in sex work’. VAMP works closely with SANGRAM a health and human rights NGO that I helped set up.

As a feminist activist for sex workers’ rights, my (Meena Saraswathi Seshu ) journey began in the movement against violence against women in India in the mid-1980s. I started working with deserted women and cases of dowry deaths in south Maharashtra. Sex workers were always ‘the other’ in every village.

In 1992 the HIV/AIDS epidemic forced Government of Maharashtra to initiate projects to work with ‘prostitutes’. SANGRAM plunged into this work and my world of the well-meaning activist was turned upside down. The involvement with this community of sex workers forced us to address the deep-rooted double standards and biases while dealing with issues related to sexuality and prostitution. It was impossible to ‘preach’ to a group of women who scorned the dominant value systems. The crying victims of the social workers’ imagination were not to be seen or heard.

As the understanding of prostitution as ‘exploitation, victimization, oppression, loose, immoral, illegal’, was broken into, it was not merely ideas and beliefs that had to be questioned but the language too had to be transformed. We had to revise our vocabulary to weed out words that reinforced the stigmatization and marginalization of women in sex work. The need to reclaim the notion of ‘womanhood’ also became necessary since this sanctified moral space refused to acknowledge the fact that the very identity (of being a woman) was obliterated by the “whore, harlot, veshya” image. If women were not “good” then they had no right to be considered women.’ It thus became a matter of claiming citizenship itself.

What caught our imagination was the notion that casual sex could be a physical act stripped of emotion, can be initiated by women, can be used in a commercial context and even be pleasurable. Besides, many adult women seemed to appear in the communities, out of ‘nowhere’ apparently, comfortable with this notion of sex within a commercial context with multiple men. This challenged our initial idea that no woman could and would enter sex work on her own and the notion that all women were forced and trafficked into sex work. It was apparent that many women were not there by force, deception or in debt bondage and were freely walking in and out of the communities.

The argument that decriminalisation will increase exploitation by legalising pimps and brothel owners is made with a very limited understanding of commercial sex

We, therefore, realised that the argument that decriminalisation will increase exploitation by legalising pimps and brothel owners is made with a very limited understanding of commercial sex. Punitive laws that criminalise and punish sex work act as instruments through which sex workers are harassed and regularly have their human rights violated by law enforcement agencies, health authorities and clients. In many countries, sex workers are a primary means by which the police meet arrest quotas, extort money, and extract information.

Police wield power over sex workers in the form of threats of arrest and public humiliation and use condoms as evidence of illegal activity, undoing years of effective public health promotion and campaigning around STIs and HIV. Forced testing for HIV is commonplace, along with breaches of due process and privacy. Sex workers in many jurisdictions are the targets of frequent harassment, physical and sexual abuse, and forced “rehabilitation”. Where sex work is illegal, sex workers often feel there is little they can do to address the violations perpetrated against them and are deterred from accessing health services for fear of further stigma and abuse.

Decriminalisation will help sex workers address abusive or sub-standard or unfair working conditions instituted by state and non-state actors

Branding decriminalisation as an attempt to legalise pimps and brothel keepers does not help sex workers in their struggles for rights, including the rights to health, and justice.

The term “third parties” used by the sex workers rights movement recognizes the diverse third party working relationships that sex workers negotiate. In contrast, the term, “pimp” is a stigmatizing racial stereotype. It posits sex workers as victims rather than as workers, denying their agency. Sex workers can be employees, employers or participate in a range of other work related relationships. Framed as targeting exploitative working relationships of sex workers, third party laws are also used to target the personal relationships of sex workers, as well as workplaces. The criminalisation of sex workers’ personal relationships amounts to the criminalisation of sex workers themselves, while the criminalisation of workplaces mitigates against sex workers ability to protect themselves from HIV and other STIs, and gain labour rights.

In environments where aspects of sex work are criminalised, for instance, soliciting, living off the earnings of a sex worker, managers. sex workers face discrimination and stigma which undermine their human rights, including to liberty, security of the person, equality, and health. Evidence suggests that sex workers’ risk of HIV infection is inextricably related to their marginalized and illegal status, which drives their work underground and increases police abuse and exploitation.

According to UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, “even where services are theoretically available, sex workers and their clients face substantial obstacles to accessing HIV prevention, treatment care and support, particularly where sex work is criminalized.” In countries where sex work is decriminalized, there is evidence that violence directed at sex workers is reduced, relations between sex workers and the police are improved, and access to health services is increased.

The reason why VAMP supports Amnesty International in the decriminalisation demand is because sex workers from VAMP want States to actively seek to empower the most marginalised in society, including through supporting the right to freedom of association of those engaging in sex work, establishing frameworks that ensure access to appropriate, quality health services and safe working conditions and through combating discrimination or abuse based on sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression. This echoes the voices of sex workers around the world who argue that states are responsible for proactively protecting fundamental rights and call on them to undertake measures that will help protect, respect, and fulfill these rights for all.

Any argument that seeks to define sex work as violence and exploitation forecloses discussion over the rights of people involved in sex work to pursue it as a livelihood. It exacerbates the lack of legal remedies to redress violence and erodes the efforts of sex workers fighting for legal and social recognition of their rights to dignity and livelihood. Sex work is work, and sex workers should not be defined as either criminals or victims, such an analysis harms not only sex workers but all women.

Meena Saraswathi Seshu is the co -founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, an organisation working with marginalised women in rural Maharashtra, India. She was instrumental in collectivising women in sex work to form VAMP (Veshya Anyaya Mukti Parishad)

Aarthi Pai is an activist and lawyer. She is the Director of Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation, (CASAM) a unit in SANGRAM that focuses on laws, policies and structures that impact sex workers and sexual minorities

Kamala Maushi: Salute to a proud Devadasi

Kamala-Maushi

In memory of a proud Devadasi, a relentless activist who fought for sex workers rights, a natural leader and a compassionate comrade – Kamala Maushi (11-2-1950 to 11-2-2015)

By Meena Seshu

“Unlike gharguti [household] women I am married to a Goddess! In my culture, I have become a man. I am a Kaka (paternal uncle) to my nieces and nephews! All property in the house will be distributed equally among my brothers and me. Upper caste people in the village have to treat me with respect,” said Kamalabai Pani, explaining the Devadasi custom.

I met Kamalabai in April 2000 when she came to the office of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) office in Sangli with Bhimawa Gollar. They were best friends: both ‘big’ Gharwalis (Brothel owners) in Sangli. They came because Sidharam a local thug had targeted Kamalabai, pulled her out of a running auto rickshaw and physically assaulted her. They approached us to intervene because the police refused to file a case against Sidharam. We went and filed the case together and from then on all our lives changed.

Kamala Maushi was proud to be a Devadasi. She always believed that she was in a much better position compared to married women, because she felt more in ‘control’ of her life. She loved her jewellery and wore it for almost any occasion. “I am not a poor woman,” she often said.

Her understanding about the Devadasi system defied argument. She was perplexed by the opposition to the Devadasi system. Her argument was that she was superior because she was married to a goddess and thus would never be a widow; she was considered a ‘male’ in the family; she was the head of her household; she had control over her earnings and her property; her children were her own and did not belong to the man who fathered them; she was allowed to have multiple sexual partners among other freedoms.

She disagreed with the analysis that the Devdasi system was established in order to ensure that upper caste and upper class men always had access to women from the Dalit castes with societal sanction. She argued that in her own personal life she had ‘kept’ and had access to many men from all castes and classes of society. She paid to keep them and left them when she wanted to do so. Her present malak (live in lover) was an upper caste landed farmer who she ‘maintained’ till her death.

Kamalabai was a natural leader who had the respect of various levels of people she interacted with, District Magistrate, Police, Dean of the Civil hospital, Municipal Councillors, MLAs, lawyers, NGO leaders, Trade Union leaders, community leaders, feminist leaders both national and international. When the Collector of Sangli had a meeting on income generation projects for sex workers she told him, “Sir, the government should have income generation for persons who are unable to earn on their own. Sex Workers already have an income.” The DM immediately instructed his officers to stop the compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers, in Sangli.

Her arguments with police officers and health officials in Sangli were legendary: “Are we not human?” is a question she asked every official who violated the rights of sex workers

Her understanding of the right to be treated as a human being irrespective of the legality of her work (brothel keeping is illegal) never failed to impress me. She argued that criminalisation of her work did not give law enforcement the right to violate her dignity.

At the community level she coined the term “Anyay sehan karnar nahi”. Will not tolerate injustice! She mobilised to root out money lenders who charged exorbitant interest, in Gokulnagar first and then on the idea spread to all the areas in which the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the sex workers’ collective, was active. A staunch supporter of collectivisation, as an effective method in the struggle for rights, she nurtured many a young leader in VAMP. She talked about rights of young women in sex work to both brothel owners and third parties involved in the management of sex work.

She played a huge part in stopping minor girls from entering the business. Talking to brothel owners, explaining issues of consent, deception, debt bondage and economic exploitation within the trade she convinced her opponents that trafficking was an injustice against the community and fought to oust dalals (agents) and money lenders.

The most endearing trait of this indomitable woman was her ability to forgive her enemies. She repeatedly told us all to control our anger. “Anger kills the collective spirit,” she always said. VAMP and SANGRAM will miss her wisdom, kindness and warmth. We only hope we have the strength to continue this struggle that means so much to all of us.

Kamala Maushi, Zindabad!

Pregnant Sex Worker Brutally Assaulted by Satara Cops

Sex workers India

Women’s groups in the country are demanding stern action against the policemen in Satara who assaulted a pregnant sex worker causing a miscarriage

By Team FI

Women’s organisations in the country are outraged that even after one month no action has been taken against the policemen who brutally assaulted a pregnant sex worker in Satara, Maharastra, causing a miscarriage. The incident occurred on 2nd  April,  around 7.30 pm, when Anu Mokal, who was four months pregnant, and Anjana Ghadge were bringing dinner for their friend who was admitted in the civil hospital.

When they were passing the Satara bus stand area, senior Police Inspector Dayanand Dhome started shouting at them using abusive language. When they told him that they were taking food for their friend, he allegedly called them liars. Dhome and his subordinates started beating Anu and her friend Anjana. Dhome repeatedly kicked them and said that women like Anu are a ‘shame’. Her pleas that she was four months pregnant fell on deaf ears. Anu and Anjana were detained and put in a lockup.

On the following day they were produced before the magistrate and were released after a payment of Rs 1200 fine for an offense not known to them. They were taken to the civil hospital by members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad [VAMP] an organisation that works among sex workers and Anu received medication.  However, on 5th April, she suffered a miscarriage.

Anu has filed a complaint against Inspector Dhome and his colleagues with the Satara Superintendent of Police M. M. Prasanna. SANGRAM, (an organisation that runs the Maharashtra State AIDS Society HIV/AIDS prevention project with women in sex work and sexual minorities in Satara District), has also sent a written complaint to the Home Minister R.R.Patil, SP M.M  Prasanna, and the Regional DIG Tukaram Chavhan, demanding that action be taken against Dayanad Dhome and others, but to no avail. DSP Prasanna told a delegation from VAMP on 30th April that an enquiry has been instituted but he did not commit as to when one can expect its result.

Sign online petition Justice For Anu Mokal