SANGRAM
Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha
 

Mission

People should believe that they can change things. It is not about a few activists fighting for other people’s rights. Anybody who has imbibed this understanding should be able to go and fight for their rights.

 
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“Are we not citizens of India? Are we not human?” Shabana Kazi, general secretary, VAMP
While many individuals have benefited from collectivization, some have become more dependent on the collective. Political parties have started eyeing VAMP as a potential vote bank.

THE STRUGGLE TO BE HUMAN

“We will manage the community at all levels and only come to you in a crisis.” VAMP to SANGRAM

When the peer education programme began in 1992, it was run by SANGRAM. Since 1996, the peer intervention has been run by VAMP, a collective of women in prostitution and sex work. VAMP, which was begun with a corpus of Rs 6 lakhs, aims to consolidate a common identity among women in prostitution and sex work and empower them to find their own solutions.

The concept of forming an independent collective was first brought up at a meeting held in the seaside village of Ganpatipule in March 1995. About 150 women in prostitution and sex work at this meeting agreed that what they wanted was a registered, volunteer-based non-government organization. They did not want a co-operative society, partly because of the corruption associated with powerful sugar co-operatives in the region. VAMP was registered as an independent organization in 1996.

As part of its responsibilities, VAMP runs and manages the peer intervention in the six districts where it began: Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur, Solapur, Bagalkot, Belgaum. “Once VAMP was formed, we actually decided to close down SANGRAM.” But the women perceived it as abandonment. “They would tell us, ‘Because we are sex workers, you want us to form our own organization and work on our own," she recalls.

VAMP members – all of whom are women in prostitution and sex work – said they felt comfortable managing the community on their own, but needed help with back-office work: writing proposals, managing accounts, dealing with the Charity Commissioner etc. “We will manage the community at all levels and only come to you in a crisis,” VAMP members told SANGRAM staff. It was then decided that the two organizations should collaborate – with each bringing its strengths and meeting the other’s needs.

Women in prostitution and sex work are champions at orally keeping track of money and handling salary and other disbursals – but putting it on paper is another story. “The women are scared of paperwork.” “They need to learn that they don’t need to be scared – but this is an alien space for them.” An earlier attempt to train the women did not work. “The energy dipped.” Now, for each project that VAMP runs, its members select a co-ordinator who will put their words on paper.

Reading, writing, and doing paperwork is a need that women in prostitution and sex work often need help with, simply because many of them have never been to school. But not being able to read or write does not mean that they cannot think. Working from its philosophy of building capacities, SANGRAM proposed a unique solution to the paperwork problem:

VAMP taught SANGRAM that :

  • Women in prostitution and sex work would record their day-to-day work and accounts by dictating these to literate people in their own community – clients, sons, daughters, and colleagues.
  • A person trusted and identified by VAMP members would be appointed as co-ordinator. Raju Naik, the person who the women chose, is the son of a sex worker. He is the first male co-ordinator of VAMP, and his salary is split between VAMP and SANGRAM.

The process leading to this innovative solution provides a good insight into what makes the VAMP-SANGRAM collaboration tick. Where another organization might have considered illiteracy a disqualifier in terms of building leadership, SANGRAM worked around it. Instead of unilaterally choosing a co-ordinator, it devised a process through which women in prostitution and sex work could decide who they wanted as co-ordinator. Invisible, day-to-day processes such as this reveal as much about the relationship between VAMP and SANGRAM as overt actions. “VAMP is like a branch office.” “It is independent and runs on its own, but gets its life sustenance from SANGRAM.”

Part of being a branch office means independently dealing with thorny issues – like wage disparities. In the early days, all women in prostitution and sex work earned similar monthly incomes as peer educators. With the advent of funding, salary disparities have also crept in – some women get Rs 100 per month, while others get Rs 6000. At its weekly Monday meeting – which is the main decision-making mechanism for VAMP – members agreed on the principle of ‘more pay for more work’. They accepted that those who have more responsibilities should be paid higher salaries. “It did create a ripple, but VAMP has been able to absorb that ripple.”

Unlike collectives where power dynamics are not overtly acknowledged (or brushed over), VAMP is built on an understanding that power hierarchies exist in group situations and formations – these need to be acknowledged, accepted, and challenged. One way of challenging hierarchies is through the decision-making process; this needs to be as broad-based and participatory as possible. When enough women have enough opinions and enough strength to voice them, power bases will be forced to shift.

At VAMP, the power to make decisions is decentralized, rather than centralized. VAMP members in some areas have set up mohalla committees to discuss local issues – police raids, clients, gharwalis, alcohol sale, condom availability etc. But in other areas these don’t exist. “VAMP is not a line organization at all.” “If one area has a mohalla committee, it does not mean that every area should do the same. It depends on the need and situation.” The effects of decentralization are most evident among VAMP board members, who are strong, thinking individuals with diverse, often conflicting views and opinions, rather than cardboard cutouts echoing identical thoughts and ideas.

Pros and cons

“The tree has grown, the flowers have blossomed, and now we are waiting for the fruit…and they will come.” Kashibai, woman in prostitution and sex work

Over the years, VAMP has come to play an important role in the lives of women in prostitution and sex work. Many women today proudly proclaim, “I’m a devadasi, I’m part of VAMP, I work with SANGRAM.” For many women, VAMP provides an empowering identity, one that they do not hesitate to call their own.

It is hard to weigh the benefits of intangible, layered processes of collective formation. Even so, VAMP has helped women in prostitution and sex work to:

  • Learn collective negotiation skills. They are now able to use the fact that they are a collective in negotiating with power structures.
  • Get a legitimate voice and be heard. This is a stark contrast to earlier days when they were not heard at all.
  • Individually become stronger. In their own heads, many women have worked out that they are neither bad nor evil. Despite what the mainstream has been telling them, there is a different truth which is more comfortable for them. Their self-worth and sense of self has strengthened, and their lives are punctuated with many more moments of dignity. “You can actually see it.” “What they came as and where they’ve reached. It’s tremendous.”

As the collective has grown stronger, it has faced attendant challenges. While many individuals have benefited from collectivization, some have become more dependent on the collective. Political parties have started eyeing VAMP as a potential vote bank.

And at some points, the powerful have got more powerful. Gharwalis (who were not initially part of VAMP) joined the collective once they realized its influence in the community and started trying to direct it. This created tensions and power hierarchies within VAMP, which have yet to be resolved.

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