Dream Village: A refuge for India's former sex workers

In a mission to bring dignity back to sex workers, non-profit organisation Kat-Katha has created a safe space for them to step towards independence.

It happens like clockwork. It’s past midnight. A customer arrives. She’s told that it’s time to work. She climbs up a ladder leading to a smaller room in the attic. It’s dark except for some light seeping through the cracks in the room. Once the transaction is done, she waits for it to happen all over again.  

She and numerous other women live most of their lives as sex workers in one of the countless brothels lining the street of Garstin Bastion Road (GB Road), or known colloquially to the women as “The Road”. 

With just four walls that these women call home, it feels like a life prison sentence. 

31-year-old Jyoti shares, “[We] never saw the sunlight, or the outside world as how it is. We felt like prisoners. At least prisoners are brought out sometimes, our situation was worse than even them.” 

“I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone.”

Jyoti has spent 17 years on The Road. When she was 14, she ran away from home and was tricked into moving to The Road on the pretext of a job. Ever since then, life within those walls is all that she has known.

Many women like Jyoti face similar circumstances. 

Arti has spent more than two decades on the road and was forced into sex work when she was ten. 

Arti recalls, “A lady brought me here on the pretext of getting me domestic work. I said I won’t do this work. She said if I want to leave, I will have to give her 50,000 rupees (USD650).” The women only make an average of 6000 rupees (USD78) a month. 

“I didn’t know what to do, how to escape, and never got a chance. Ten, fifteen years went by and my family also got to know about me and said they will kill me if I went home.”

The shame and stigma attached to this job is so strong that the mere idea of returning home is an unachievable dream. For Jyoti, a similar sentiment ripples through her life. 

“I personally could not leave as my family got to know that I am in this line of work, so they had told me clearly never to step foot in the house again,” Jyoti says. 

“When they can’t accept us, how will they accept our children?”

Jyoti has an 11-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. Arti has a five-year-old daughter and is currently pregnant. 

When Jyoti’s son turned two, she realised that he was starting to understand the nature of her job. She decided to send him away to live in a hostel run by another non-governmental organisation as she did not want him to grow up in the brothel. 

Jyoti adds, “The atmosphere on The Road was terrible, would be so dirty, no sense of cleanliness and hygiene.”

“It’s a dirty place with lots of fights happening all the time, drunk men coming. We could never give them [the kids] a feeling of being home.”

Her son is 11 years old now and the possibility of reuniting with his mother is in sight. 

The idea of home was a detached and foreign concept for these women until they met Gitanjali Babbar, founder of Kat-Katha, whose main mission is to bring dignity and respect back to sex workers.

To empower the women with confidence, the team provides upskilling programmes for them, which eventually allows them to be financially independent. But Kat-Katha believes that the most important factor for the women to take back their agency lies in being able to have a home of their own.

Gitanjali shares, “Staying in that space, one can’t live the life that one desires. Till the time you don’t come out of the brothel, the owners hold your life, and your agency will not be in your hands.”

So Kat-Katha is helping them physically leave the brothel to create their own home. 

However, looking for a space for sex workers has been a challenging task. 

“Nobody wants to give their space to sex workers and sex worker’s children. So, whenever we set up our space somewhere we were asked to move from that space for some or the other reason,” explains Gitanjali. 

After ten years of searching, Kat-Katha has recently secured a space for the women to move into and to make their own, a place aptly named “Dream Village”, 

With birds chirping and lush greenery spread across the space, a semblance of peace settles across the sprawling compound. The women relish in the simple joys of tending to their garden, learning skills and just soaking in the sun while chatting with each other; and most importantly, creating a conducive environment to bring up their children. 

Since its completion, Jyoti, Arti and six other women have moved into their space. The journey of moving from the brothel to Dream Village has been challenging for the women. Leaving a space they have known their whole lives is a daunting step. But a welcome one. 

Away from the stigma that GB Road carries, the women have started to rebuild their lives but are aware of the challenges ahead.

“There are others also who, like us, want to do better. There are many didis [sisters] who want to come out of there but are helpless and can’t leave. We have a dream that we come out from that space and do some good work.”

She adds: “People should not see us through that gaze. I am also a mother, a daughter, a sister. How one sees people in their homes, we want people to see us the same way.”

About Kat-Katha

Kat-Katha is a non-profit organisation that aims to improve the lives of people forced into sex work. The team hopes to empower women and children living in brothels to be able to gain their dignity back, by equipping them with useful skills, providing opportunities and instilling confidence for them to choose a life of their own. The organisation is building a safe space for the women to live in, called Dream Village.

Contributors

Director

Mamta Singh

Producer & Writer

Pei Lin Tan

Camera

Sunayana Singh

Sound

Anuradha Bansal

Editor

Vikash Malhotra

Animator

Ankit Kumar

Illustrator

Anu Sharma

Executive Producer

Sharon Pereira