Far, far away, someone was weeping, but the world was sleeping, any dream will do.Andrew lloyd Webber & Timothy Rice
“No women wants to get into sex work. It’s not that they made a choice, but rather that they had no choice to make. Their life is tough but sex workers so often just to live to create a better future for their kids. It is the single overriding reason why they carry on.”Excerpt from the Book
I read this book last year, and it hit me quite hard. We can really never understand what circumstances made someone choose the profession of sex work especially at the bottom of the pyramid. However, I didn’t get enough peace and thinking space for writing the review of this book. I don’t know how to express my lack of knowledge about this topic but I still know nothing about the lives of sex-workers to comment on their profession and their lives. Honestly, I am feeling perplexed because this book shows to me that they are doing sex work out of desperation and poverty. A woman is forced to sell her body for fifty rupees or even for a meal or some milk for their infant. Thinking of this situation only makes me sad and empty. Still, these people despite facing struggles and problems in their lives, show us the courage, resilience, strength, hope, and optimism towards life and it’s so amazing, it compels the author and also me to put our problems in perspective and they seem very small.
Recently I was also reading this book called, “A People’s Constitution” where the author has dedicated one chapter that talks about sex, work and freedom in the Constitution. In this chapter, many women whose main livelihood is sex-work assert that this is their livelihood and they have the fundamental right to practice their profession that is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. However, the author of this book-Rohit Dey also informs us that the term ‘prostitution’ in India was entirely a creation of colonial law.
As the author of this book shows that there were many myths and misconceptions about sex work in India. There were absolute denial, apathy and stigma towards the idea of sex and sexuality. As per one survey, about five women in every thousand involved in sex work.
This book gives you practical lessons about public health and dealing with people and the community when they are in the most vulnerable and desperate situations. This book makes you realize how public health can be delivered through successful community participation. The role of people is very important in dealing with any virus. And we can see even during this current pandemic, the prevention of this virus is dependent on people’s following of some basic rules. And when people have the ownership and they are engaged in dealing with the problem, they will come up with innovative solutions.
As the author shows the successful role of the community in the Sonagachi area in Kolkata. And the best thing is that they have organised themselves to deliver services safely, addressing the root cause of their vulnerability and also emerged as prime agents of change. They have created their own association named Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Cooperative (DMSC) which has three parts: Service provision including clinics, a cooperative bank, and a cultural wing. And this association is also quite vocal about recognition of sex work as an occupation and preserving & protecting their occupational rights asserting that it’s their fundamental rights.
However, there are some revelations in the book: For instance, brothel sex is very minimal in the country. In fact, it is dominated by street-based sex work and also practiced in homes by middle-class women to keep their houses running and sometimes for funding the education of their kids. The author also talks about ‘Devadasi tradition’ and also met various Devadasis who practice sex-work. As the author finds out during his travel to these places and speaking to affected women, the Devadasi tradition has become a front for impoverished parents to get their young daughters into sex work. In fact, as per the Policy Brief on Devadasi legislations published by CLPR, shows that poverty, caste domination, patriarchy & religion are the main causes for the Devdasi system to still flourish.
The best thing mentioned in this book about the Avahan mission led by the author Ashok Alexander with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is that it made a substantial improvement in the lives of sex-workers and halted the HIV virus among the most vulnerable people in the country. The Avahan movement helped India to achieve one of the Millenium Development Goals (Goal 6-To combat HIV/AIDS). However, this achievement was never celebrated due to the stigma attached to this disease.
The most touching part of this book was narration of those stories of hope and courage. Despite all odds and facing so many challenges, these people show us how to smile even if you are in the most desperate and vulnerable situation and how not to lose hope anytime. The story of Parvati ( an acid attack victim & also a sex worker), Kamla (who was raped by five men), Danny (got infected to HIV in his mother’s womb), Kavita( a sex-worker from Shimoga who later on became part of Avahan and Ashodaya), Shahid ( a HIV positive who later on became director of program for Ashodaya) and many others are stories of hope and courage. Our lives look so easy and comfortable as compared to their lives and even after this, we crib about many things but they are struggling and smiling and spending each day living a life of dignity in so much adversity.
And in the end, you have nothing but these moving & memorable stories to think about and remember.