Jayamma Bhandari was orphaned at the age of three and spent her childhood in grim poverty.
She was forced into the sex trade by her husband. But unlike other victims, she challenged her destiny — becoming, in the process, an inspiration for many other women like her.
Now 40 years old, Bhandari 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 upskilling and livelihood courses.
According to the National Aids Control Organisation, there are 1.65million registered sex workers in India — the actual numbers would be much higher — who lead 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.
Bhandari is credited with directly impacting the lives of about 5000 women in sex work and nearly a 1000 of them are now engaged in alternative livelihoods. Also, more than 3500 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 recently. The Confederation of Indian Industry conferred her with the Exemplar Award last year.
Bhandari grew up in her uncle’s home in Nakrakal in Nalgonda district, about 300km 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, 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, Bhandari 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 Bhandari the strength to go on.
For Bhandari, it was 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’s 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 Bhandari - 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 way 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 Bhandari.
“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,” 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 find 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 because they have nowhere to go.
The sight of their children sometimes getting abused in front of them is disheartening for these mothers.
Bhandari 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 were provided with 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, Bhandari said a firm “no”: “First, the law needs to be in place. Policymakers, police and activists need continuous sensitisation on this issue.”
Prostitution 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.