2018 International Women’s Day Remembered

Overcoming police harassment and a horrific accident as a community.

Aastha Parivaar Unit 2 (AP 2) and Targeted Intervention Centre, Aasha Darpaan (AD), support a community of female sex workers (FSW) in the Grant Road suburb of Mumbai. This support includes, but is not limited to: facilitating events, health check ups, HIV screening, counselling and condom distribution.

The Grant Road area hosts many brothels, which are typically run out of multi-storey dilapidated apartment buildings. In 2018, a dispute arose within the apartment complex where AP 2 and AD operate. The general population living in neighbouring buildings opposed having the brothels running near their homes and involved the police. The police enforced a ban on lights at night time in all of the brothels. This meant that the FSWs were not only prevented from working, but also from being able to use lights for basic tasks such as washing or doing housework. Police officers who were stationed outside the brothel buildings every night and would storm the building and raid any room that turned on a light.

By March 8th, 2018 tensions were running high. The police, who continued to monitor the building and conduct frequent raids, had brought the FSWs gifts in celebration of International Women’s Day with the money they had collected off the women as bribes the previous day. Two women, who were regular attendees of AP 2 and AD activities, could not tolerate any more, and switched on their light after dark to use the bathroom. The police stormed the building, making their way towards the room. Terrified for their lives, the women attempted to escape by jumping out of their window on the second floor to the neighbouring building. Both women failed to make the jump; one perished instantly and the other died a few hours later from her injuries.

This horrific event rocked the community and an uprising threatened to emerge; led by the sister of one of the deceased women who also worked in the brothel. The police, knowing that they were potentially up for a manslaughter case, began to blackmail the sister and other sex workers. The police threatened to reveal their profession to their families (who are usually unaware that their daughter is a FSW) by plastering their faces all over local newspapers and television news programs. The consequence of this would be devastating, with their families totally disowning them and severing contact. As a result, the FSWs backed off one by one, relinquishing the battle.

AP 2  and AD saw the hopelessness arising within the community, along with the impact of the sex workers being unable to generate any source of income. They knew something had to be done to save the women from becoming destitute and to overcome police oppression – it was time for the community to band together. A plan was formed, wherein one FSW would turn on a light in the evening, and then every single person on that floor would crowd into the room. Once the police reached the door, they could hardly fit into the room as it was so full of people.

The plan was risky, but the workers recognised it was the best chance they had to change their situation. Every night, the same exercise was carried out at different times in different rooms; until eventually the police saw that the raids no longer scared the community into compliance and eventually ceased to enforce the ban.

International Women’s Day 2019 is bound to be a difficult day for the community, being the first anniversary of this tragedy. Although it cannot remove the scars left by this day, the support they have found in each other and in Aastha Parivaar and Aasha Darpaan is bound to offer some small solace.