Sunday, 20 August 2017

How Hard Is It To Exit Prostitution? (Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 18 August 2017)

Two days ago, Noor Bai (name changed) was attacked by her daughter's father-in-law and mother-in-law. She was beaten, her clothes were ripped, and her thin as reed seven month pregnant daughter received blows on her protruding belly. The whole of Perna Basti in Dharampura, beyond Dwarka in Delhi NCR, had gathered outside her house. But no one called the police.
In some time, Noor Bai called up Khushboo at Apne Aap Women Worldwide. She just said, help me, I am being attacked. We at Apne Aap dialled 100 and requested that the police be sent to her house immediately. It took exactly an hour for us to reach Dharampura from Anand Niketan. Outside Noor Bai's house, there was a big crowd but no sign of the police. When we contacted the police again, they said they had gone to help the victim but were sent away by the crowd with the word that it was a matter of the biradari (community) and the biradari would settle it. The police told us that this is how it always is at the Perna Basti in Dharampura.
When Noor Bai saw us, she seemed relieved and her daughter's in-laws withdrew from the scene. We asked her to come with us and file an FIR at the police station. But all those gathered would just not let her leave with us. They blocked her way and used all means to deter her from taking this step - they used threat, plea, emotional blackmailing and what not. Someone even said that her daughter's father-in-law would be nominated as the pradhan (chief) of the caste panchayat this year and so she ought to be careful.
(Read the rest of the story at http://news.trust.org//item/20170818115614-za9td)

Sunday, 2 April 2017

An evening with extraordinary women at Sonagachi, Kolkata. 2 April 2017.

I was in Kolkata yesterday to attend a consultation on the Child Labour Act, at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences which is located in the Salt Lake neighbourhood. In the evening, I visited the Apne Aap Women Worldwide Khidirpur and Sonagachi offices to say hello to my extraordinary colleagues. Khidirpur is close to the red light area Munshiganj and Sonagachi is one of Asia's biggest red light areas. Traveling from Salt Lake to Khidirpur and Sonagachi seemed like travelling to a different lifetime.

One of Asia's biggest red light areas - Sonagachi, Kolkata. 2 April 2017.

The tram line at Sonagachi and a man pulling a rickshaw (the blur on the left), even today.

I pose with the extraordinary Apne Aap women at the Apne Aap Sonagachi centre.

Celebrated writer Baby Haldar, who is a former domestic help. She is a prolific writer and her autobiography Aalo Aandhari, which shot her to fame in 2006, has been translated into several languages. She runs the Apne Aap Sonagachi centre with Rumki. 

The ever cheerful Rumki :)

The very talented Keya and Payal. They will both appear in an upcoming film 'Love Sonia,' directed by Tabrez Noorani. The film is based on true stories around sex trafficking. Keya and Payal play real life in reel life.

Sahani Di, who has dedicated her life to changing the lives of the children of prostituted women, outside the Sonagachi Apne Aap centre. Everyone at Sonagachi calls her 'Ma.' She tells me stories of how she befriended the women in Munshiganj and Sonagachi by getting them and their children come to the Apne Aap centres to take baths and wash their clothes because in these parts of the city, bathrooms and water are forever a problem.

The dynamic trio. Baby Haldar told me when I was leaving that I should come again and we should have a good 'adda' session where we discuss literature, lives, music, and films. I promised her I will come again for a longer time.

Looking outside from the Apne Aap Sonagachi centre


Walls of the centre

This is Uma at the Apne Aap Khidirpur centre. As a child, she used to come to the Apne Aap centre at Munshiganj where Sahana di used to run a learning centre for the children of prostituted women. Uma also used to stay back at this centre in the night, with several other girls from the area. Uma told me that for some five - six years, their mothers made them stay back at the Apne Aap night shelter to protect them from traffickers and pimps. 'This centre here is my home,' she told me about the Khidirpur centre, 'I have grown up here. I have had several skill training here, including how to use the machines for making sanitary napkins.' Uma has been running the Apne Aap sanitary napkin making unit for a few years now.

A poster outside the Apne Aap Khidirpur centre


Saturday, 4 March 2017

Toasting Renu in Forbesganj with firebrand women, songs against patriarchy, and memories!

Yesterday, in Forbesganj, as people moved with hurried feet placing floor cushions, chairs and putting up posters and photographs at the Jagdish Mill Compound office of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, the weather decided to contribute its bit by sending across a lovely breeze to add to the celebratory mood. After all, Phaneshwar Nath Renu's birth anniversary was being celebrated. Renu, who wrote for and about the people and land in this part of the country. Who wrote for the casteless as well as those whose generations were ruined by Caste. Who wrote about love and rebellion in the same breath. 

As journalist Nivedita Shakeel said while interacting with everyone yesterday, Renu understood that one cannot be a rebel without the ability to love deeply.

The stage is all set. Celebrating Renu's birth anniversary on 4 March 2017 at the Apne Aap centre in Forbesganj with a conversation between Ruchira Gupta and Girindra Nath Jha. Ruchira is an abolitionist activist, journalist, academic, writer, and founder of Apne Aap. Girindra Nath Jha is a journalist, writer and farmer.  

It was for the first time that Renu's birth anniversary was being celebrated at the Jagdish Mill Compound. Ruchira Gupta, at whose family house the event was held (where even the Apne Aap office is), has been reading letters exchanged between her uncle Birju Babu and Renu these days. These letters and some photographs of Renu in this house have been preserved by her father Vidyasagar Gupta, who never thought that some day his daughter would bring them out to a larger world. 

Renu looms large over displayed copies of his letters to Birju Babu at the exhibition yesterday

Keeping memories and the stories alive was the idea behind yesterday's event. As journalist-writer-farmer Girindra Nath Jha told to some seventy people present at the gathering that when he first came to meet Ruchira here at this house, he felt as if the ghosts of extraordinary men and women were walking down its corridors, whispering to him. It might be true. For every time I walk along the corridor and through the rooms, looking at the photographs on the walls, I feel as if the people in those photographs might become animate any moment in their eagerness to tell me what happened all those years ago.

Ruchira opened the conversation by talking about how Renu did not separate women from nature, from the land, from the rivers when he wrote. Like their stories seamlessly came together in their journeys and fates. But what I liked most is the legend she narrated, as captured in Renu's 'Parti Parikatha.' Renu addresses the river Kosi as 'mayya' (mother) and writes of how she grew up being cursed ('kos,' 'kosna' - I think that's how the river must have got its name, if I go by this legend). And then when she got married, there came a time when she fled from her in-law's house to light a lamp in her mother's name at a temple in Malda (Ruchira later told me that this temple still exists). What I found fascinating is the existence of a space like this where a married woman can honor her mother or keep her ties with her mother alive. Especially because in Bihar, like most of north India, a married woman means she has severed all ties with her maternal house.     

People start coming by 2 pm

Tinku Khanna (director of Apne Aap) welcoming trade union leader Kamayani Swami of Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan and journalist and writer Nivedita Shakeel.

Vidyasagar ji started the afternoon event by welcoming everyone and remembering the days when the house at this Jagdish Mill compound also used to be home for Phaneshwar Nath Renu on several occasions. 

Renu's old friends and acquaintances in the audience

Vidyasagar ji spoke as the exhibition in the background stood testimony to his stories about Renu, drawn from memory. 

The conversation started with Roshanara reading to the audience a short story by Renu. Fabulous work!

Fatima, activist with Apne Aap, has put several traffickers in Araria in jail, including the most dreaded Gainul. She is from the Nat community, a freed/denotified tribe which practices inter generational prostitution, subjecting girls of ten - twelve years to prostitution. She fought the system within her family and is now fighting it in her community,   

Meena, another Apne Aap activist in Forbesganj, is a prostitution survivor who works relentlessly to help women with choices in life, to help them understand that at ten or twelve years of age prostitution cannot be a choice for girls. Her story has been captured in the film 'Meena' by The Sibbs and Lucy Lui.

As Nivedita Shakeel said to the audience, thanks to women before us and with us, we can tell our stories! Thanks to their courage, their efforts! She spoke of how women writing was not quite a thing in the past. How even in Rabindra Nath Tagore's house, his sister who wrote so well wasn't acknowledged or encouraged. And why because this was the case, women in the old days scribbled on the kitchen walls where they were mostly confined. 

Roshanara dreams of learning the harmonium and singing along with it some day. Young hearts. Dreams.

Sanju ji, who runs Apne Aap's Uttari Rampur centre in Forbesganj, listened intently as Roshanara read out the story. Sanju ji has tutored many girls at the centre, some of whom have finished school and have attended or are attending college. Like Roshanara. 

A shy Roshanara as people complimented her wonderful reading of Renu's short story. 

Ruchira referred to Renu's 'Parti Parikatha' (published in 1957) where he has written about a land in Araria as 'parti' (barren). There was a curse, she said, Renu mentioned this in the book. No one would dare attempt cultivating the land or settling down there. Today, she said, after sixty years since the book was written, there are houses in that very land and a school run by the Government of Bihar and Apne Aap for girls from vulnerable communities. An indication of how it takes just one step of courage to overcome curses.  

Girindra Nath Jha spoke of Renu and his reportage as an inspiration in his career as a journalist and how now he has come back to the village after years of city life to become a farmer and create a culturally vibrant village with his Chanka Residency - a residency for artists.

The exhibition space where photographs of Renu with Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Baba Nagarjun, Ruchira's father Vidyasagar Gupta, and her uncle Birju Babu were displayed.

Tanmay and Sohini,  facing the house that holds many memories related to the Nepal democracy movement, abolition of Zaminadri in Bihar, etc.  

There are so many stories etched all over the house. And they keep tumbling out. Like yesterday, after dinner, as Vidyasagar ji, Ruchira, Tinku and I sat chatting, Vidyasagar ji enthralled us with one tale after another about Renu and other writer friends. Their idiosyncrasies, love stories and ideologies. He also told us about how during the Nepal democracy movement, Girija Prasad Koirala, who was a close friend of Birju Babu (Vidyasagar ji's elder brother), and his comrades stayed at this very house in Forbesganj and planned the hijack of an aeroplane that was carrying money from the Nepal treasury. Vidyasagar ji also told us how the comrades of the Nepal democracy movement used the bathroom, in a corner far away from the house, as the wireless centre! 

The photo gallery 

Vidyasagar ji and Girindra Nath Jha with flautist Shambhu Mishra ji.

Ruchira and Nivedita Shakeel catch up at the exhibition space

Ruchira, Vidyasagar ji, Girindra Nath Jha with Phaneshwar Nath Renu's son Dakshineshwar Roy and Renu Verma.

Capturing the photographer. Saurav :)

Sanju ji interacting with Girindra Nath Jha

Blogger Chinmaya seen here interacting with Phaneshwar Nath Renu's son, Dakshineshwar Roy 

A group photo!
 
Ruchira's mother, Rajni ji, in the audience
 
Subhan ji and Shaukat :)

Jaikishore ji who has been an accountant at the Jagdish Mill Compound since it's very early days, for over forty-fifty years now.

Tinku Khanna and Praveen ji happy with themselves with an event so well organised!

Kamayani Swami and her activist friends from Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan ended the event with a strong message against patriarchy through a song. 

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Demonetization and Sex Trafficking in India (Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 28 Dec 2016)

We have been reading in the newspapers how demonetization has curbed trafficking in India. Maybe that's one side of the story. What anti-sex trafficking activists have been hearing from the prostituted women in brothels makes for the bigger story, which somehow the media in the country has missed. This is the story of how demonetization has increased the vulnerabilities and exploitation of not only the prostituted women but also women from communities living on the boundaries.
I accompanied Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal and her team to the brothels of GB Road in Delhi yesterday - brothels housed in buildings with no clue about owners; because in paper, the ownership of these buildings still remain with people who died decades ago. She was on an inspection with representatives from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, whom she wants to conduct a survey about the illegal constructions inside the brothels.  
Climbing up narrow staircases stained with paan stains which took one to an equally narrow and dim corridor, and through that to small rooms without ventilation, we visited about five brothels late in the afternoon. Most women were from Nepal and Andhra Pradesh. A few were from West Bengal and I found one from Assam. They have the same story to tell. Abandoned by families or sold by lovers and uncles and aunts. In two brothels we also found kids with their mothers.
"Because it is afternoon now, you see these women having their lunch and not too many people around," Delhi Commission for Women member Farheen Malick told me. "When we visited the brothels in the night some time ago, about 100-150 men and women came out of each brothel. Can you imagine that?" 
It was indeed difficult to imagine that number of people in those brothels. But as we took a tour of the brothels, I realised that it might be true. A little room, in each brothel, where ordinarily about six people can sleep comfortably had about 12 to 15 women standing there with their faces covered as we entered. And this little room had several doors and secret passages that led to other little rooms. When we went, the women were having their luch. So the smell of food filled the stale air inside the brothels along with the stench of tobacco.
And in all the five brothels we visited, the prostituted women revealed that they still have customers. That has not stopped even with demonetization. What has happened though is that they are being paid much less than before. One woman also admitted that some customers are still paying her in the old currency. And when I asked her what she did with it, she said she sent it home, to her village in Andhra Pradesh. She said she has two daughters and a son, who live with her aunt in the village.
A few of them did admit that times are difficult with demonetization, but that they will have to stick it out as they don't know of any other way to earn money after all these years. Most of them came to GB Road in their teenaged years. And they have been living here since. I also spoke to the Nayika of three brothels. The Nayika is a woman in her late forties or fifties who came to GB Road in her teens and has spent all her life here. She is now the caretaker of a brothel and that's how she lives by at this stage of her life. The nayikas in all the three brothels displayed great loyalty to the place. They said with exaggerated sadness how business is down these days and that most of the women have gone back home.
"It is the common experience of anti trafficking activists all over the world that at times of crisis - be it economic recession, natural disasters, or ethnic conflicts - trafficking increases," tells me anti trafficking activist Tinku Khanna, who has been with Apne Aap Women Worldwide since 2002, working with abolitionist Ruchira Gupta towards ending sex trafficking through field and policy interventions. "We have to remember that trafficking is not about a single entry and exit point; it is a chain. Immediate payment of money is not a concern for the trafficker, who knows that the money will be recovered sooner or later," she adds. Apne Aap has been working with prostituted women and girls from red light areas in Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi as well as with women and girls from certain caste communities who are at risk of being trafficked.  

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

In the Land of Abolitionists - Forbesganj (Bihar)

For about ten days now I have been in Forbesganj, a small town on the Indo-Nepal border, in Bihar. It is beautiful and very peaceful. But behind this serenity, lies the history of an important abolitionist movement. This small town is where abolitionist and feminist organiser Ruchira Gupta started her work in 2002 - to end trafficking for sexual exploitation. She founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide with this aim, which began to work with the Nat community in Forbesganj, a community which suffered (and still does) from inter-generational prostitution. Ruchira realised that it was not only poverty but the lack of choices for people in this community which pushed them towards prostitution and families lived off the sexual exploitation of their women as their men brought their own women customers.

A movement can bring results only when there are leaders from the community, is what Ruchira has always emphasized. And in Apne Aap, that is what she has tried to do all these years with the support of her fellow abolitionist Tinku Khanna. In this photoessay, I try to paint a picture of beautiful Forbesganj and its fiery abolitionists.

Ruchira's family home in the Jagdish Mill campus at Forbesganj which has been converted into an Apne Aap centre. 

The beautiful family house of the Guptas

The beautiful family house of the Guptas that has been converted into Apne Aap guest house :)



The Apne Aap office within the campus

Outside the gates

This is Meena. She used to live with her grandmother in Bhutan.When she was a little girl, some men sold her and sent her off to Katihar. She stayed at a brothel there for some time, gave birth to a girl, but managed to escape and flee to Forbesganj. She couldn't bring her infant daughter with her though. It was much later that she rescued her daughter from the brothel, the daughter now a young girl, with the help of Apne Aap activists and the police. Her story has been well documented in a short film by Lucy Lui and The Sibbs (Negan Raney Aarons and Colin Keith Gray). This story has also been captured in The Town of Love by Norwegian writer Anne Ostby. For the last several years now, as an Apne Aap activist, Meena has been mobilising girls from vulnerable communities in Forbesganj to attend school and the Apne Aap community centre at Uttari Rampur. Meena has put around 12 - 13 traffickers from Forbesganj and Katihar behind bars till date with the support of other Apne Aap activists and the police.  

This is Fatima. A human rights defender with Apne Aap. She is from the Nat community, where girls are subjected to inter-generation prostitution as a form of livelihood. "I was married at the age of nine," she tells me, "When I had no idea what marriage is or what a husband is. I saw that my mother-in-law used to buy girls and put them into prostitution. A few of my sisters-in-law were also into prostitution. But I saw how they suffered and lived in fear of my mother-in-law. I didn't like it, and I helped them escape. I have been beaten up harshly every time I helped a girl escape. My mother-in-law and husband were very crude. Once, my mother-in-law bought a girl at Rs 1,00,000 and I helped that girl flee. That was when she told my husband to put me into prostitution. She said, 'Isko dhande mein dalo, issi se paisa nikalo' (put her in the trade and get money out of her). But it was when they put a little girl called Afsana into prostitution, my blood boiled. I was very fond of Afsana and would never part with her. My mother-in-law asked me to go home for a few days. And I was so excited because they never let me go home. When I came back, Afsana clung to me and cried that she has been put into prostitution. That was it. I rebelled against my family!" Fatima has so far played an important role in putting several traffickers in Forbesganj behind the bars, including the most dreaded Gainul. She has been with Apne Aap since 2005. She tells me that today, in the Nat family in Forbesganj, only those who have been in prostitution from before are still in it, no girl from the family is anymore put into prostitution, nor is any girl bought by a Nat family to be prostituted. People like her and Meena and the other Apne Aap activists in Forbesganj have a huge role to play in this.  

This is Kalam. He is an Apne Aap activist and is from the Nat community. "We were a nomadic community," he tells me. "We didn't own land and used to travel from one place to another. Often the eldest daughter of the family was prostituted and the other girls were groomed for marriage. So the daughters who were groomed for marriage were never put into prostitution." Kalam, like Fatima, struggled within his family and the community to end the custom of inter-generation prostitution. Today, he is a role model for the boys of his community. He is a lawyer and encourage community members not to groom boys for pimping their own women. He has also played an important role in putting traffickers behind the bars, and along with Fatima, Meena, Tinku and Ruchira conducted several rescue operations in and around Forbesganj.  

In the middle of our documentation exercise at the Apne Aap Forbesganj office, social activist and livelihood design expert Samhita Barooah interacts with Kalam, as he tells us his story. Kalam told us that today, out of the total 50  households of Nat community in Forbesganj, only 10 are into prostitution.   

I pose with the human rights defenders Fatima and Meena and Apne Aap social worker Sanju:)

Now, Forbesganj is a small town and has this quaint little railway station. The whole set up is like, what my friend Samhita (in the picture) says, Malgudi Days.    

This pretty woman agreed to pose for me :) And if you look at the right hand side of the photograph, you will see Madhubani paintings on the wall of the station, a project that Apne Aap had undertaken in 2012 - 2013. 

This is the market place right next to the railway station. On tho other side of the railway station is the Apne Aap centre at the Jagdish Mill campus.

A pretty shop right where the market ended. Fascinating stuff, and such awesome prices!
  
We walked past the market and came to this beautiful spot. Sultanpukhor, Forbesganj.

This is right next to Sultanpukhor. The British used this whole geographical area, which is now Forbesganj, for indigo cultivation. Forbes, a British administrator, was sent to this place to oversee the cultivation. What you see in the picture is Forbes's house, where some other family has moved in long long ago. Forbesganj is named after Forbes. And this is where Forbes lived.

Next to Sultanpukhor is this little shop where we rested for a while and chatted up with the owners.

While returning from Sultanpukhor, we came across this church that was established in 1873.

As we walked around, we came across a few old buildings like this one. Should be a contemporary of the Jagdish Mill campus.

This is the beautiful Kothi Hat area by the canal. One can take a long walk here and also cut across the golden paddy fields.

A walk by the canal at Kothi Hat. The canal is on one side and gorgeous golden paddy fields on the other.

We met a few beautiful and friendly women in the paddy fields. They told us that they are daily wage labourers and work in the 'zamindar's land'. They told us that they are paid Rs 50 per day while for the same work the men are paid Rs 200. 

Street food at Forbesganj. But one should also try out Restaurant Jyoti, which is not very far from the railway station, on the side of the Jagdish Mill Campus. They really serve good food. 

A family run shop right in front of Jagdish Mill campus. One can get everything here from milk to pulses to toiletries.

Now that we are in Forbesganj, of course we have to make a trip to Nepal. This gate is at Jogbani, the last point in India, after which there is a tiny patch of no man's land, and then Birat Nagar in Nepal. In Jogabani, one can see houses where parts are both in India and Nepal. So, if the entrance opens in India, the house is in Nepal. And we also saw a few sheep grazing at no man's land. Fascinating place this is with so much hustle and bustle! Birat Nagar in Nepal is just 40 minutes away from Forbesganj.

We are finally at the local market in Birat Nagar, Nepal, which used to be the largest industrial hub of Nepal at one time. It is Nepal's second largest city and mainly a commercial centre.

Souvenirs at Birat Nagar


Note: All these photographs are in natural light. Not photoshopped :) 

How Hard Is It To Exit Prostitution? (Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 18 August 2017)

Two days ago, Noor Bai (name changed) was attacked by her daughter's father-in-law and mother-in-law. She was beaten, her clothes were...