For several months, Anchal has worked with a new group of commercial sex workers in Ajmer, India (a small city a few hours outside of Jaipur). It was difficult for Devon and I to work for so many months without being able to meet the women and become more familiar with their living conditions. After six months and several quilt shipments, I was finally able to put a face and spirit to the names stitched on a each blanket. After personally working with these women for several days of workshops, I truly admire the happiness and energy they effuse in light of such difficult lives.
The first day Devon and I arrived in Ajmer we ventured out with the Vatsalya team to recruit new women for the workshop. Though I’ve visited several red light districts in Kolkata, it never gets easier viewing the conditions in which sex workers are subjected to. Unlike Kolkata’s dense Kalighat red light district, the brothels of Ajmer are more spread out. They share the common themes of unbearably small living quarters without the amenities we take for granted, such as running water or finished floors, but these quarters were set against rugged mountains and blue desert skies. In addition the ever present stench of garbage follows you everywhere.
Despite these conditions, these new artisans arrive to the workshop each day with smiles and cheerful hellos. They find a seat on the blanket stretched out on Vatsalya’s roof terrace and engage fully with the task at hand. Nazia, a young energetic 22 year old, greeted us with a huge hug on the first day. She joined the project in August and is clearly a creative soul. The women are interested in a different life but pressures from abusive husbands, families, and constant pressure to make quick cash often prevents them from making a serious life change. The quilting process is a slow tedious process in comparison to the fast life of prostitution.
Today, Neeta asked that we take a group photo so she could tell those in her family and community that she belongs to this group. She was very proud to call herself an Anchal artisan. All the women seemed to share this sentiment and insisted we take photos with both Devon and myself.
Their giggly, warm-heartedness can distract you from their life after dark. This evening we had the opportunity to be dinner guests at Sultana’s home. Sultana is one of the counselors for Vatsalya’s health program, and also a sex worker. It was quite an indescribable moment walking into her home. It was basic to say the least, concrete floors & no windows. I did feel incredibly welcome and the women all seemed extremely proud to have us visit their home. It was the most unique experience to date. We were quickly and warmly greeted by a swarm of women and family members, including two of our artisans: Nazia and Momina.
Momina had transformed into a little doll. She was wearing a brightly colored outfit, makeup and sparkling jewelry. When one of Vatsalya’s staff members commented on her new appearance, she explained that this was her “area.” This is the reality, another very young girl of 17 subjected to the life of a commercial sex worker.
They lead two very different lives but still absolutely wonderful strong women. I only hope that this project begins to give them a ray of light, escape, and brighter future.