Indian sex workers an example of women’s empowerment

This morning I read an inspiring article in the Guardian about Indian sex workers. The article was about a community of sex workers in Kolkata claiming rights and recognition with the help of a local organization called Vamp.

There’s power in a collective.

Vamp is a part of a larger organization called Sangram, fighting to stop state violence against women in sex work. Founded in 1997, Vamp advocates health issues and human rights of sex workers. In the last ten years Vamp has helped sex workers in Kolkata to improve their working conditions and encouraged more and more women to use condoms with their clients.

These are great improvements, but the most impressive change has been in attitudes. Prostitution, a profession which society generally sees as the disgusting and most inferior, is liberating many women from patriarchal oppression, from institutions like marriage.

“If I had been married, I would be HIV positive by now,” says Shaban, a sex worker and a Vamp supporter.

“Why? Because he would have had sex elsewhere and would have passed it on to me.”

In a traditional Indian marriage, the woman has no freedom and is unable to insist her husband to use a condom, for example. In her work Shaban sets the rules. She’s able to choose her clients, choose when she works. She has her own income and she’s able to educate her children. “I’m free as a bird,” she says.

The main message taken from this article is that Shaban and other women in the Kolkata sex worker community are not in the sex business out of desperation. Some of the women have been married and have tried other professions but eventually return to sex work by choice. The problem with sex work is the stigma and the language. As the columnist writes, if we see these women as “prostituted” we see them as less than humans, “incapable of determining their own destinies.” These women don’t want or need to be ‘saved.’

Shaban says, “Whatever rights you have as citizens in a society we also have those rights. What is the matter if we are women in prostitution? Are we not women?”

Watch a short video about Shaban and her community here.

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Peacebuilding in Rwanda

A few nights ago I attended a talk by Freddy Mutanguha at the Royal Commonwealth Society near Embankment in London. Freddy is the director of the Kigali Memorial Centre, and his speech was about Peacebuilding in Rwanda. Although there are no perfect solutions, I want to share with you what I gathered from Freddy’s talk.

Freddy, the director of the Kigali Memorial Centre, was visiting London this week.

The event began with a video clip that Aegis Trust, the charity that built the Kigali Memorial Centre, had put together. The clip, called Not On My Watch, was a touching overview of the genocide and its aftermath. I picked up the following, unsettling numbers to demonstrate the totality of the genocide: in 100 days 1,000,000 people were killed, mostly by using machetes. That means 10,000 people a day, 400 an hour, 7 people every minute.

Today 18 years have passed since the genocide. The Rwandan government has taken extensive measures to encourage unity (such as forbidding public use of the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’), but many still argue that these measures are ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive. Most of the audience questions had to do with how is Rwanda really coping today. One audience member raised his hand and said he had recently visited Northern Rwanda and attended a church service in a village. He pointed out that the church had consisted exclusively of Hutus, and implied that Rwandan society is still largely segregated. Freddy, who had talked a lot about unity, simply answered that a possible reason there weren’t any Tutsis in that church was because there are none left in the area. There are parts of Rwanda where the genocide was completed wholly and entirely.

Another audience member asked about the psychology of the perpetrators. She had difficulty grasping the brutality of the killings and she asked whether the perpetrators today are in denial or help in Peacebuilding.

“No one really thought about psychology at first,” Freddy said. Today, the perpetrators are divided: some help in Peacebuilding, some just want to forget. Freddy gave an example how on every last Saturday of every month people across Rwanda get together to clean roads of the villages and work together for a better community. This means both victims and perpetrators. Officially, no one is a Hutu or Tutsi anymore; all people are Rwandese.

The conversation then went on to discuss education. Freddy himself is a certified teacher at the National University of Rwanda. In his talk, he highlighted the importance of critical thinking. To demonstrate what he meant he used a light-hearted example of Omo, the detergent product. He said that everyone in Rwanda washes their clothes with Omo but if someone is to ask them ‘why Omo’ most people wouldn’t know what to say. He said that the most important thing in genocide education is to teach children to critically assess their personal beliefs and those of society, beliefs no matter how small, from ideas of washing detergent, to ideas of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and race.

Someone then asked, “But is it enough?”

Freddy smiled at the immensity of the question, and said “What we can do, lets do it.”

Freddy’s words go hand-in-hand with the quote Women for Rwanda runs by: Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you should do nothing. If you can do it, lets do it!