News of Her Own

Deep inside the cramped streets of the bustling Kamathipura district in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, an editorial meeting is in progress at the tiny office of a new magazine. The clatter of keyboards is audible as contents for the upcoming issue are finalized, page layouts planned and the past issue dissected.

This could be any small publication in India’s bustling print media industry, except for one thing. Most of the reporters are female prostitutes and the newsroom is located inside a brothel. The magazine is the freshly-minted Red Light Despatch, India’s first monthly publication exclusively by and for sex workers.

Launched six months ago amid a swirl of publicity, Despatch offers a look inside the world of professional sex in South Asia, including first-person accounts of torture and harassment. The schmaltzy outpourings, poems, essays, reviews and articles cover issues like sex workers’ health (think HIV), legal rights and personal stories, including tales of being sold into the trade as children.

The magazine tries to offer an unfiltered glimpse into the life of India's biggest brothels, the dark underbelly of pimps and abusive customers and the dreams and shattered hopes of sex workers. The reporters, often prostitutes or their relatives, file their stories after visiting brothels in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi.

“Out of loads of copy, we pick and choose the best for publication,” said Rupa Metgudd, the magazine’s news coordinator and the daughter of a former prostitute. “Our magazine isn’t an ordinary publication. It’s journalism with a purpose.” Adds a sex-worker-turned-reporter, "We get the stories from other sex workers and report them here. It’s easy for us to get good stories because we’re accepted as one of `them’.”

The brains behind the magazine is journalist Anurag Chaturvedi, who is fine-tuning Despatch and training the all-woman staff. Chaturvedi, who is also a trustee of Apane Aap, the NGO that finances the monthly, says that the aim is to give sex workers a voice. “That’s why we prefer that the women themselves report and edit the magazine,'' he says.

There have been sex worker ‘zines in the United States and elsewhere, but Despatch may be the world’s first monthly edited almost exclusively by sex workers, with the aid of two journalists. According to Metgudd, the broader aim is to expose exploitation by the lowlife pimps and cheats who inhabit the brothel world, and also to encourage the women to ultimately get out of the business. “The magazine is a pulpit for the collective nostalgia and dreams of the sex worker community and an attempt to wean their children away from the profession,” Chaturvedi says.

For instance, in a recent edition, Sita, a prostitute from Kolkata, recounted the horrific childhood marriage that forced her to flee her home and land in a brothel. "My dignity was torn to pieces,” she writes. “I used to cry a lot. But I soon learnt that some things will never change no matter how much you cry." Another sex worker poured out her thoughts on love gone bad, failed marriages, and a dream of owning a "house with lots of sky" away from the "frightening" world of prostitution.

The magazine prints about 1,000 copies in Hindi and English and is distributed free among prostitutes and residents of red light districts. Printed without photographs — and utterly shorn of glamour — the monthly is nevertheless effective in getting its message across to its target constituency.

"It's a vent for prostitutes who share their innermost thoughts with the readers," says Anita Khude, a health volunteer associated with the magazine. "The magazine is for them and it is about them." The response has been so overwhelming that there are plans now to bring it out in other languages as well.

A forthcoming issues will carry a feature on how a “normal” man — a poor roadside snacks vendor — fought stereotypes and tied the knot with a prostitute he’d begun to love.

"We have little money, but we still pay our writers a token fee so that they realize they are capable of earning a respectable living; that there are other avenues as well for them to tap. It helps bring about a new perspective on their dreary existence," added Chaturvedi.

Although prostitution is illegal in India, it is a thriving underground industry with about two million women working as full-time sex workers. Mumbai and Kolkata have the country's largest brothel-based sex industry with a whopping 100,000 sex workers working out of Mumbai alone. More than 50 per cent of Mumbai’s sex workers are believed to be HIV-positive. In Gujarat, one of India’s richest cities due to its flourishing diamond trade, HIV prevalence among sex workers ratcheted from 17 per cent in 1992 to 43 per cent in 2000. Consistently high infection rates among sex workers, coupled with lack of information, failure to use condoms, and transient clients has contributed significantly to the spread of AIDS in the country. Despatch’s editorial team hopes that health articles will sensitize sex workers about this menace and how to protect themselves from it.

“By and by,” Chaturvedi concludes, “we will cover all the important issues that impact the lives of Indian sex workers.”