Meenu was thirteen when she was trafficked to Kolkata from Darjeeling. At an age when other girls are savouring their teenage years, Meenu was being regularly subjected to torture, rape and beatings. It was Red Light Despatch, a monthly magazine by and for sex workers, which sliced through the drudgery and despair and offered her a sliver of hope. 'When I spoke about everything that had happened to me, I felt a sense of healing. It gave me the confidence and courage to escape from the place,' she says.
Asma Ghosh, another prostituted woman, who was trafficked even earlier, at the age of 12, also feels the same about this magazine which is brought out by Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organization that works to help sex workers and fight human trafficking. According to Asma - 'By the time I came across the Despatch, my confidence was low. I was trafficked at the age of 12 and had been in living hell since. After being passed a copy by a volunteer, I became a regular reader. I suddenly felt a new sense of hope. The stories inspired me to change my life.'
While for women who have been forced into prostitution, this magazine is hope in words and paper; for policy-makers and activists the Red Light Despatch is a window into the feelings and traumas of those living in red light areas.
Launched on 2nd October 2006, on Gandhi Jayanti, the magazine serves as a mouthpiece for women who are organized by Apne Aap, an NGO that believes that prostitution is a form of violence against women, that that she is the victim of structural violence as a female and the only way to end prostitution is to internalize the principles of non-violence.
'Women, girls and men trapped in prostitution from the red-light areas of Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal write for the Despatch. They write for each other and share information, dreams, struggles and hopes in solidarity from different corners of India,' explains Ruchira Gupta, a former journalist who founded Apne Aap and who also edits the magazine.
She tells us more about what prompted them to launch the magazine. 'It was a comment by two of our members, who are women in prostitution. We had started discussions on the amendment to the ITPA (anti-trafficking law) being debated in Parliament and we wanted some newspaper articles which reflected the debate. We could not find any and one of the women said - 'Does that mean that to mainstream media, we are not important?'
On another occasion, we had started a weekly group discussion among our members on what was reported in the newspapers. Less and less girls would show up for the discussion and when I asked them why they did not come, they said there was nothing relevant to their lives in the media, so why should they come?''
Through the Red Light Despatch, activists and members of Apne Aap are trying to make up the gaps in mainstream media that often does not cover information that is relevant to the marginalized. 'Very often reporting about children and women in red-light areas is voyeuristic or judgmental. The Despatch gives an opportunity to women in prostitution to express their feelings and what they think about the 'outside' world, sitting in their 'inside' world,' explains Ruchira.
Scripting their stories:
The stories in Red Light Despatch are a melange of experiences, fears, hopes and dreams. While a young girl, the daughter of a sex worker, dreams of owning a house with basic commodities like television, fridge, things that we take for granted. She also hopes to live in her house with her family - a happy family with a father, mother, sisters, just the kind that children draw with crayons in their art class. In another story, a sex worker writes about her wish to start her own food business and her self doubts about doing so. 'I believe if we can start a food business through a common kitchen supplying food, it will address our long term needs,' says the writer. In another article, a sex worker wonders 'why are those who make us suffer are not punished?'; while, another piece titled 'Punish those who profit from our misery', the author writes about being born into prostitution.
They write of life in the brothels and related crimes like domestic violence and casteism, getting an education, travelling to other cities and about their interactions with people outside their milieu. Many articulate their growing awareness that they are entitled to lives of freedom and will not tolerate crimes committed against them. Some talk with excitement about a song they have heard. Others conduct candid Q&A sessions with doctors about HIV, and with lawyers about their right to legal redress and the brass-tacks of legal procedure.
Ruchira points out that hunger, violence, death and beatings are so much part of the women who contribute to the magazine that they no longer give much importance to it. 'Sometimes the story begins from a colour they like or a parrot they have seen and then suddenly they write about death in another para. That is a coping mechanism. They seem to have lost control. Yet, there is a tenacity to hang on.'
Bringing out the magazine:
Story ideas are discussed at Apne Aap centers across India; then Ruchira sifts through those before assigning the stories with certain guidelines. While those who are illiterate simply dictate their stories, those who can write email Ruchira their copy. After she edits the material, she passes it on to a DTP artist who does the final layout and then the magazine, in a pdf format, is sent to activists, policy-makers, politicians, journalists, artists, film makers and to the various Apne Aap centers via email.
Brought out in Hindi, Bengali and English, the Despatch is now trying to reach out to a wider circle of people by registering the magazine, getting advertisements and distributing the magazine through mainstream vendors.
'We hope that our reporters and correspondents will show mainstream media what grassroots journalism can be like, that alternative newspapers have a space and can succeed,' says Ruchira. She also hopes that the reporters will get opportunities for training in writing, editing and layout, and can demonstrate the importance of journalism with a purpose. Finance is another issue that Ruchira hopes to resolve. 'We are bringing it out with no budget at all and so, we are unable to pay any of the writers. We would like to be able to pay them something.'