United we progress

Amrita Prasad
Wednesday, 7 March 2018

We speak to women who have relentlessly been working towards empowering the community, leading to inclusive progress which is in line with the theme for International Women’s Day 2018 — #PressForProgress

The struggle for equality no longer remains a  personal battle. Women’s strife to bring about positive change in the world has become a revolution today. Be it their replies to social media trolls, showing the misogynists their place, standing up against sexual harassment, or fighting for equal pay — the battle for gender equality has become more universal. Today’s women not just take a stand for themselves, but are working towards progress that benefits the entire tribe. International Women’s Day (March 8) this year has #PressForProgress as its theme to acknowledge the success of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, and is encouraging everyone to continue pushing (pressing) for more progress. “We can’t be complacent. Now, more than ever, there’s a strong call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity. A strong call to #PressforProgress,” reads the official website of International Women’s Day. When men and women work towards common goals, the path towards a gender-inclusive world becomes a lot smoother. However, women are the key.

No woman chooses prostitution as a profession; most are pushed into the flesh trade either through treachery or by the significant men in their lives. Fifty-two-year-old Subarna Majhi’s story is no different — she was a victim of human trafficking and ended up being trapped in Asia’s largest brothel — Sonagachi, Kolkata. Having spent a decade of her life ‘pleasing her customers’, Majhi now leads a life away from what she calls ‘the hell’ after being assisted by a social worker (now dead) who not just married her but also helped her rescue and rehabilitate other young girls. “Life in a brothel is a punishment. I was an educated girl but my ill fate and trust in wrong people forced me into doing what every girl dreads. As if the cursed life is not enough, the price of this profession is paid by our children, especially the girl child. Hence, for them education is the only ray of hope,” says Majhi who was known as Titli in the circle.

Along with some other rescued educated young women, Majhi now works to educate daughters of sex workers. “Some great souls often offer free classes to these young girls. While we have been able to get some of them admitted to schools, getting all of them to school is a challenge. The ones in their 20s have jobs now,” adds Majhi. She adds that when a woman stands for another woman, the fight gets stronger and men end up either joining the fight or simply quit. “This wasn’t easy, but so many women from respectable families and those running self-help groups came forward to help us in every way possible. What looked like a far-fetched dream is now turning into reality. It is difficult to suddenly stop all sex workers from doing what they do, because they neither have the skills nor jobs to earn their livelihood, but what we can do is stop their daughters from falling prey to the evil,” insists Majhi who is currently working with a team of 50 people comprising former sex workers, homemakers, students of Calcutta University, young teachers and volunteers. Says she,“Women are powerful and they have the strength to fight all odds to make this world a better place. Let us do this together!”

Majhi has also been pushing for HIV-preventive medicines for sex workers and mandatory use of condoms by customers to avoid any kind of STDs, unwanted pregnancy and infections. “No girl/woman should await a customer in the coming years, instead their families should wait for them to return home after work,” concludes Majhi.

Dowry may have been prohibited under specific Indian laws including the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 of the Indian Penal Code, but it continues to exist and torment women. Sangeeta Kumari, 29, from Patna had almost lost her life when her husband and in-laws tried to kill her over a demand for a few lakhs. Kumari ran for her life and later filed an FIR, fought a court case and got the culprits punished. But can every woman do that?

How many of them get justice? Kumari realised that it was not just her story, but a sad tale of almost every second woman she met in court. “Dowry and its related repercussions have troubled women for centuries and the number of sufferers are uncountable. After my separation, I started  meeting married women and young girls and found so many grooms demanding dowry. I took a pledge to stop this and soon other women joined me. We keep an eye on weddings in our area, new matrimonial alliances and attempt to encourage the would-be bride to wage a war against dowry and patriarchy and refuse to marry a man demanding dowry,” says Kumari, who has, along with her team, managed to convince around 20 women against marrying “greedy grooms” and also got a few families arrested for torturing their daughters-in-law for dowry.

“It is an uphill task because girls are afraid to take this bold step due to societal pressures. The stigma surrounding a divorced woman is difficult to bear but it is better than bowing down to injustice. I want to save as many girls as possible from this evil. Together we can change the world,” insists Kumari. She conducts workshops, and often seeks help from NGOs to fulfill this dream.

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