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Jayamma Bandari - a warrior of dignity

Meet Jayamma Bandari - woman who dares demand dignity and rights for thousands of sex workers in Hyderabad, India

With her faded cotton sari, old sandals and a soft voice, Jayamma Bandari of Hyderabad wears a demure look. However, the 34 - year old social activist actually has a raging fire within her. For, to run an organization that demands, among other things, dignity and civic rights for sex workers – undeniably the most prejudiced citizens in an orthodox Indian society, one needs that fire of courage and determination. And it is these two qualities that define Jayamma - the founder and president of Chaithanya Mahila Mandali (CMM) - a city-based NGO.

“The problem of the sex workers is that not only they are economically deprived, but are also denied of any moral support. I am here to provide them this,” says Jayamma – a woman who has been there herself, experiencing the hardship of a sex worker first hand.

Fighting the devil from within the hell

The story of Jayamma’s fight against the evil, right from within the hell began in 1998. It was that year that Jayamma, a young mother with a baby girl, came to Hyderabad along with her husband from Nalgonda - a district sixty three miles away. She had been orphaned at the age of three and was brought up by relatives, including an uncle who did not treat her well. Once in Hyderabad, she dreamed of a happy and secure life. However, barely six months later, she was forced into sex worker by none other than her own husband.

During this period, Jayamma had a harrowing time. “I spent days crying aloud and not taking food. There were times when I tried to kill myself. But every time I would think of my child and hold myself back,” says she, recalling those days.

Soon, however, she met Jaya Singh Thomas – a noted social activist with over two decades of experience who helped her found CMM . With that, Jayamma embarked on a new journey of life as a social activist. Her aim: to fight for the rights of the most stigmatized section of the society - the sex workers. It was the year 2001.

Eleven years later, Jayamma has not only curved a place for herself as a dignity and rights warrior, but has also helped put the issues of sex workers on the radar of the government. The fact that sex workers are now called so, instead of "prostitutes", is an indication that a change is underway to recognize them as a labor force.

Be there for those who have nobody to call their own

At CMM, Jayamma guides a team of social workers that works for the welfare of the city's 25,000 odd sex worker community. From conducting surveys on the sexual health to keeping a tab on the civic facilities accessed by the sex workers, the team works on a wide range of issues. Many of these team members are former sex workers. Being from the community, therefore, is an added advantage as they have an easier access to other colleagues.

22 year old Akshaya who doesn't want to reveal her family name ("it doesn't matter any more', she says), is one of the "peer educators," meaning a woman who reaches out to other sex workers and educates them on safe sex, HIV/AIDS and related subjects. The CMM has provided Akshaya an Identity card. For the young woman, who migrated to Hyderabad four years ago from Adilabad - a district up north, it is the most precious possession she has.

"I came to the city to find a job. I found none. Instead, I became a sex worker. It is illegal and also considered immoral. So, I can't reveal this identity to anyone, not even my family. So, every time I visited my village, I lied; I said that I worked in an office. Now, at CMM, I have found an identity that I can actually talk about. I don't need to lie any more,"says Akshaya, a note of pride not escaping her voice.

Akshaya thanks Jayamma for that. "She has been a mother to us in more than one ways,' says the young woman.

These ways include counseling, guiding and, if the need arises, taking to the street, in support of a troubled or wronged sex worker. "The police often raids the places where we work, detains and books us for immoral act or trafficking. But when a client turns violent, attacking a sex worker. the police refuses to take action against him. In such cases its Jayamma who we can turn to. There are so many instances when she has staged a sit-in protest outside a police station, or bailed us out after the police arrested. She understands us and shares our pain. She knows that we are selling sex because this is the only means of livelihood we found; without it we would die of starvation," says Aruna, another sex worker.

Sex workers are citizens with legitimate rights

There are 25, 000 sex workers in the city of Hyderabad today. This is an official figure, though Jayamma feels that there might a few more thousands who do not reveal their identity due to social stigma. The entire community is at a high risk of getting infected with HIV. The reason is not only lack of information, but also the unwillingness of their clients to use condoms. To help deal with these challenges, Jayamma has been running a special project for the sex worker community in partnership with the local government. Under the project, sex workers receive information on HIV/AIDs. Besides, they are trained on how to get free check up and treatment for both HIV/'AIDS, as well as for other sexually transmitted diseases.

The other crucial area where CMM works is helping the sex workers get valid documents that will help them access government-run welfare schemes and other civic facilities. Most of the sex workers are women who migrated from the village to the city, where they know nobody and are completely dependent on the mercy of their clients and the brokers who bring in the clients. With official documents such as an national security number, permanent bank accounts and voting ID etc, will not only decrease the sex workers' dependence on these clients and pimps, but will also provide them the much-needed social and economic security that they currently lack.

Says Jaya Singh Thomas, the social activist who has been a mentor to Jayamma, "She was the first woman to work for the welfare of sex workers who came from the community itself. Not many women get a second chance in life. Even a fewer number of them know how to make the use of that second chance. Jayamma not only utilized the opportunity to pull herself out of the situation she was in, but also has been extending others the same opportunity. With her help, quite a few women, who were earlier nameless sex workers, are now playing leadership in many fields."

There is a string of success stories that Jayamma has scripted in the past eleven years. These include preventing a number of young women and adolescent girls from entering into sex work, rescuing and helping many women return home, helping them find alternative livelihood and most important and all, sheltering and educating a number of sex workers' children, thus curving a life of dignity and freedom for them.

A proud mother

In recognition to her work, Jayamma has also received many accolades, including Naveena Mahila Contest Award, which recognized her ability to share her own story to bring change. Also, she sits on a number of high-level committees and forums including the National Sex Workers Forum,New Delhi and the advisory Board, Andhra Pradesh (the state that the city of Hyderabad falls in) State Legislative forum.

But ask her what is the greatest achievement of her life and Jayamma answers:"Thousands of women today call me 'amma' (mother). It reflects their love and trust in me. This is the greatest honor for me."

Humility, combined with an iron will to uplift the downtrodden. It is this unique combination that makes Jayamma the inspiring woman that she is.

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