Dollar, Decisions & Destiny

Urmila Chanam
Posted October 24, 2015 from India

I was once in a support group program where I heard the testimony of a sex worker in my country (a kind of program where women in sex work come together to share about factors behind their choice to be in the sex trade to lend support to each other) and she shared how it was for her to transition from having been a homemaker to a sex worker. It redefined my perspective on livelihood options that are available for women in India where families do not invest money and resources on their education and girls and women acquire very little skills along their lives that will land them a decent job or a well paying vocation.

The woman in her early thirties shared that she married against her parent's wish so when her husband started beating her and making life intolerable for her when she could not get dowry from her parents, she had no support coming in from her family. One day her husband pushed her out of his house and brought in a woman he called his new wife. The woman was stranded with two small children, a girl and boy with nowhere to go and no relative to give them shelter till she found a job or a way out.

She found her cousin sister sympathise with her situation and lived for a month in her house. She looked for a job with a vigor but did not find any. Her cousin sister asked her to leave as she too was unable to afford to support the three of them and her husband was not in favour of the idea to keep them for too long.

The woman and her two children stood under a big banyan tree for 3 long days and slept under the shade at night among the mosquitoes, insects and the hot sun in the day time. By the third day, the woman's daughter developed high fever causing much distress to her and a sense of urgency to find money to take her to a doctor and get a shelter for them.

All throughout the days the three of them stood under the banyan tree, different men approached her, appearing to show sympathy and offered money, food and shelter in exchange for sexual services.On the fourth day, when no other alternative was working out for her, the woman consented to have sex with two men who paid her Rs. 300 each. With that money she acquired confidence of fending for her children and moved to a make-shift rented room and got her children in the safe confines of a home.

The woman became a sex worker officially that day.

Listening to this testimony my paradigm on sex work shifted which had rested on the concept of women walking along the streets to fetch clients and earn money easily without putting much effort. I realized that sex work is the most difficult job a woman can do. She is not treated right by many clients, the kind of sex they demand may not be aggreable to her; many a times she is underpaid, many times she has been contracted for one man but more number of men join in thus exploiting her, there have been instances of cigerette burns and beating and instances where clients have fled after stealing all their money. She is abused by clients on job, by the policemen when she refuses to pay them a part of her earnings in exchange for not arresting her or not offering them sexual favours for free. Her lover, husband or partner abuses her out of suspicion or disrespect over her choice of work even when he might be living off her earnings.

Why do women look at livelihood avenues that make them injured, unhappy, exposing them to disease and danger or low income? This is to my understanding a power dynamics that exists in our society and a woman just succumbs under its pressure and crumbles like a pack of cards. These women chose sex work over starvation, sickness and death like any man would do if no options remained. These women chose sex work because they did not have skills that would get them a job. The solution then lies in investing in our daughters education and skill building. The solution is in giving her the confidence. The solution is in keeping our doors open to our daughters when things go wrong and possess the strength to support them defying societal norms. If every mother can do this, no woman will have to look at livelihood options that are dangerous.

The problems of our gender are economic but they begin from discrimination against our gender. We must work to clarify this in our minds first to be able to develop empathy for women whose lives are caught up in this whirwind. The solutions of our world begins with empathy.

This is not a story on sex work but my story of how I acquired a new personality after a testimony and today, I host a stance within me to extend all possible help to women in sex work and any woman who is in a difficult situation. Women are victims of their situation but if women fend for women, we need no one else.

By

Urmila Chanam,

Founder,

Breaking the Silence

Banish myths & taboos on menstruation,

National Laadli Awardee|2015

India

Comments 22

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Girish Singh
Oct 24, 2015
Oct 24, 2015

There is a lot of power in your pen. To tell you the truth, when I finished reading this, I felt changed. As a teenager, I saw sex workers in the dark alleys of Kolkata and to me till today, they constitute such an abomination ...almost like a bad omen. Little did I understand,the life that constrained the vast majority of them to take up this vocation. Once again, it is about perspective and if we just manage to look at things from their standpoint ....I guess they deserve better than the ostracism that we impose on them every time we cross them in some darkish alley.....

Urmila Chanam
Oct 24, 2015
Oct 24, 2015

Dear Girish,

Thanks for your honesty. If a population of 20,000 people in a small town have about 1000 sex workers( in an instance in my experience), I believe it is more than just a bad omen- its reality! Realities come with three sides to the story. This was the first side. I am so glad my story makes you feel changed. It is so important we keep trying to dismantle perspectives which do injury to a section of women who already have lot of issues.

Much love and prayers,

Urmila Chanam

Urmila Chanam
Oct 24, 2015
Oct 24, 2015

My dear Ann,

Thank you for reading my story. Why should girls and women have limited options for them to choose from? It all boils down to education, doesn't it? Empowerment without education will never happen. Education without mother's taking lead will never occur.

Love and hugs,

Urmila Chanam

Ann Forsthoefel
Oct 24, 2015
Oct 24, 2015

Dear Urmila,

Thank you for your powerful words and sharing this story. As you so eloquently stated we need education and opportunity for ever woman so she never has to decide between feedign her children or selling her body to survive. 

I stand beside you and with you to change this situation globally.

My deepest gratitude to you,

Ann

Tamarack Verrall
Oct 24, 2015
Oct 24, 2015

Dear Urmila,

Your story touched me deeply. Your beautifully and honestly written words bring such understanding and support to all women who have faced no alternative but to choose sex work. It is heartening to read that there has been a forum through a support group for this woman's testimony to be heard and understood. 

I also stand with you and Ann to change this situation globally, and agree wholeheartedly that good economic alternatives must be made available. As we learn of groups of women in India going together to gather women and girls from brothels, and offer alternatives, we celebrate each victory.

With love in sisterhood,

Tam

Urmila Chanam
Oct 27, 2015
Oct 27, 2015

My dear Tam,

Support groups are the most wonderful wall to lean on sister !! Imagine, if we had them for different women who are trapped in different situations and finding solutions by listening to others and finding different ways of looking at our own situation. On second thoughts, our focus should be to strengthen economic status of women and ensure inheritance rights to be able to secure dignity and value to our gender. Thank you for reading sister.

Love and hugs,

Urmila Chanam

JaniceW
Oct 29, 2015
Oct 29, 2015

Dearest Urmila, how are you? This is a thoughtful piece that touches on what I see as a crisis of empathy with women in the sex industries. There is no shortage of sympathy for sex workers but sympathy causes the privileged to give money in return for compelling narratives that say "look at all the great things your money has done". The problem is that sympathy keeps the sex workers at arm's length. Empathy, as in your case, means seeing them as they are — women who are doing what is necessary to take care of themselves and their children. The women do need resources and services but they also need people to care about their abuse and explotation without judgment so that they can get the support and protection they deserve. 

Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and insightful story.

Urmila Chanam
Nov 03, 2015
Nov 03, 2015

Dearest Janice,

You identified the problem so accurately- the complete absence of empathy for sex workers among other women, men and society as whole marginalises women in sex work endlessly. This stigma and blame game acts as barrier to their capacity to report crimes against them to the police or avail medical care when required. It is important to shift paradigms and understand women in sex work are victims of situation and offer if not help atleast understanding.

I am doing fine sister I hope you are doing good. Feeling good to connect after a long period.

Warm regards,

Urmila Chanam

Nusrat Ara
Nov 03, 2015
Nov 03, 2015

Dear Urmila,

Thanks for sharing the story of this woman and the issue of what is called one of the oldest professions in the world. 

Urmila Chanam
Nov 03, 2015
Nov 03, 2015

My dear Nusrat,

HOW ARE YOU?? I have lost touch with you completely. Are you ok, happy, good?? Thanks for reading dear.

Hugs, Urmila Chanam

Nusrat Ara
Nov 03, 2015
Nov 03, 2015

All well . You have been too busy. :)

Urmila Chanam
Nov 03, 2015
Nov 03, 2015

My dear Nusrat,

I will not deny that, sister :) When I look back at 2015 as the year is nearly over, I see this year as one in which I took new challenges, pushed myself to areas I would have not ventured out easily and it has brought me to feel content. What about you?

Warm regards,

Urmila Chanam

Kika Katchunga
Nov 12, 2015
Nov 12, 2015

Educate a woman you educate a whole nation if the world ignores that's a big problem for the nation; what you said is right; this is a job that is very hard; I confirm that it did not respect a human thank you for the struggle for change; I support one hundred percent your solution  

 

Urmila Chanam
Nov 13, 2015
Nov 13, 2015

Dear Sylvie,

A good shift is taking place in my country- the government acknowkledges that if you feed,educate, protect and provide for one woman, you will feed, educate, protect and provide for the family. This is taking shape of reformed government programs. A lot needs to change and improve but its a beginning. Thank you for reading and for your thoughts.

Much love from India,

Urmila Chanam

Kika Katchunga
Nov 13, 2015
Nov 13, 2015

all my congratulations for your country and good luck

love  

Urmila Chanam
Nov 13, 2015
Nov 13, 2015

Loads of love your way, my sister!!

Nov 13, 2015
Nov 13, 2015
This comment has been removed by the commenter or a moderator.
Urmila Chanam
Nov 13, 2015
Nov 13, 2015

Thank you Evelyne for writing in to me- I only wish I could understand your language. If you can get it translated into English I could converse with you.

Love and prayers, Urmila Chanam

dmurali
Nov 20, 2015
Nov 20, 2015

Dear Urmila

Thanks for sharing this very hard story. I am writing this response with a heavy heart. By reading a story like this, every reader like me should feel like they have just lifted something very heavy on his/her shoulders and we should strive to work together to bring the burden down by eradicating sex trafficking. People like you are doing a very hard job and please continue your great work. I hope the momemtum will only get better and better by joining hands with more people like me.

Urmila Chanam
Nov 30, 2015
Nov 30, 2015

Dear Dmurali,

Real stories should make us stronger to be able to volunteer our time, empathy and support to marginalized women. I would not think of eradicating sex work as its work for so many women but I would like to see a change in the way we see these women in a more favorable way and I would like these women to enjoy labor benefits of insurance, pension and child care. I would also like to have a support mechanism where they find refuge from abuse and attack. When we educate our daughters, no woman will have to walk to sex work. Thank you for your wishes. God bless you.

In solidarity,

Urmila Chanam

India

MWAMINI EVELYNE
Nov 23, 2015
Nov 23, 2015

Hi Mrs. Urmila! thank you for sharing this story happens in your country with all the women of the world, particularly those in the community Wp. by reading this story I feel really desolated because human life is no longer respected. I note that paragraph that says: These women chose sex work parcequ 'they do not have skills that serve them to get emploi.alors I'll wish there was atleast a coaching center literacy and other occupations to recover this kind of girls and women as ignorant live is to die early. let us be united to solve this problem because it does not happen in your country only to see much more in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thank you and takes courage, because you are as a woman

Urmila Chanam
Nov 30, 2015
Nov 30, 2015

Dear sister,

I agree that a coaching centre, vocational skill building centre or a life skill centre will go a long way to build capacity in women in sex work who want another income avenue. But we must be very very careful to not force this to women who already are into so much. Making avenues of an alternative is one thing while pushing it down their throat this solution is another. How many of us are open to a job change totally isolate from the one we have right now and that too in an altogether different industry??

Love from India,

Urmila Chanam

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