As I concluded my recent technical support visits and returned to Delhi, I was filled with many thoughts and new learning. This happens every time we visit the community and interact with the women in sex work we reach through Abhaya. It is remarkable that in the face of adversity and challenges they show extreme grit and determination to survive and nurture their families.
Even though treated as objects and as wombs, these women stand their ground in their own ways that society fails to acknowledge. Society disempowers them further by ignoring their own voices and silencing them with the ‘victim’ narrative. Yes, their conditions are far from being ideal and they are far from being truly empowered but to deny them their rightful voices is perpetuating a patriarchal dynamic of looking down on them as the ‘fallen’ ones.
We must remember that the disempowerment of women in India is not limited to sex workers alone. An important reminder of how strong patriarchy is in this part of the world is very well documented in the documentary film, It’s a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World. The film was directed by Evan Grae Davis in 2012. It studies the social landscape of India and China to understand the phenomenon of the ‘missing’ girls. The United Nations estimates some 200 million girls have gone ‘missing’ worldwide due to the systematic killing of girls, or ‘gendercide.’
As a society we are reeling from the growing catastrophe of an extremely skewed sex-ratio as girls are killed because of a pathological preference for boys. Girls are targeted at the foetal stage through sex-selective abortions, in infancy and childhood, as adolescents and over the course of their lives, facing a range of sexual and other types of violence that put their lives at risk, including from such practices as dowry-deaths.
Today India and China have more boys than girls, and this has led to disturbing social developments. In India, ‘bride-trafficking’ has become a common practice where brides are being bought and sold like commodities and just as commodities, these ‘purchased brides’ are afforded virtually no human rights or dignity. In China, bachelor men are collectively known as ‘bare branches’: they can’t marry because there are not enough women left to marry! These cultures can be aggressively violent towards women and do not value the female life. The sole purpose of a woman’s life is served only through motherhood – if she gives birth to a male child.
In such a scenario, it isn’t surprising that female sex workers are at the very bottom of a highly gendered and stratified society. Female sex workers are targeted further because they defy the accepted way how a woman should be in such a patriarchal society as ours. These women are shamed and humiliated to such an extent that they internalize the humiliation and accept their low status as ‘immoral’ or ‘fallen’ women. Social attitudes toward them move between the extremes of hatred and pity and push them further into invisibility. It should be no surprise that they do not value their health.
In our Abhaya programme, we have understood that there needs to be a dialogue on gender in order to improve sexual and reproductive health. Time and again women admit that they consider their health to be less important than their husband’s or children’s. They often don’t have a say in sexual decisions like using a condom. So severe is the lack of self-esteem and confidence among these women that essentially all major decisions about their health are taken by their male partners. It doesn’t matter if she is the bread-winner and her earnings run the household, he will still have the final say.
Health is precariously governed by the existing gender politics and male domination making it imperative to engage in dialogues on gender to promote sexual and reproductive health among women in sex work. Through Abhaya we have done just that, and women have begun acknowledging these issues. They realize the need to shift the way women’s health is perceived and how their decision-making abilities are practiced. In the end, they need the space to be more vocal and have a say on issues that affect them.
Below I add my voice in a poem:
Half the Earth
by Nandini Mazumdar
Within me my soul reverberates,
It tells me I am just like you,
I am a woman too.
I am half the earth.
I am more than the red of my menstruation blood,
I am more than the life nurturing womb.
I am more than my body parts.
I am more than the relationships that define me,
More than the motherhoods and sisterhoods.
I am a human being.
I know my greatest crime in society,
Is my defiance.
That challenges the order.
That mocks your carefully crafted artificial rules.
That provokes the natural desires.
That threatens to expose the hypocrisy,
Of a society that both dreads and desires me.
That wants me to be there,
And wishes me to disappear.
Keeping me at a distance,
Looking down on me,
At other times,
It offers me a paternalistic sympathy.
Treating me as a victim.
Viewing me through its own lenses,
Society never asks me for my own story.
But I exist,
I do not give up or give in,
The double standards of society.
I seek to free myself,
From the punishment of crimes I never did.
Because I am a woman first.
And everything else later.
I am a human being.
My dignity is intrinsic,
My rights are worth fighting for.
And your prison is my crime.
And your liberation is bound in mine.
We are women,
We are half the earth.
The author of this poem and post, Nandini Mazumdar, is Programme Officer: Sexual & Reproductive Health at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.
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