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A Lower Middle Class Couple Make The Sex Workers' Cause Their Own

A Lower Middle Class Couple Make The Sex Workers' Cause Their Own
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He's been called a pimp, been laughed at and ostracised by family and friends. But Madan, named after the god of love, persists in his labour of love - rehabilitating 90 sex workers operating in Mali Sahi, the city's red-light area. And his wife Abharani fully supports him in the cause she helped him take up.

An accountant with Nalini Devi College of Education, Madan is an ordinary householder with two children. His lower middle class respectability excluded any contact with sex workers. Till, returning from a cinema - behind which lay Mali Sahi - he and Abharani stopped by at a wayside paan shop where Abharani for the first time saw some sex workers. "Dressed garishly, they were soliciting customers openly," she says. Abha naively asked her husband who they were. When told their identity, instead of being repelled, Abha felt drawn towards the women who "seemed no different from me".

That was in January 1998. The encounter resulted in the Orissa Patita Uddhar Samiti, aimed at eradicating prostitution through socio-economic rehabilitation. But when they first visited Mali Sahi, its angry residents beat up Madan and scoffed at Abha. It wasn't enough to drive the couple away.

When the sex workers were to be evicted as per a July 1998 court order, the duo appealed to the court not to do so without adequate rehabilitation as the nature of their occupation made it difficult for them to resettle elsewhere. Then in November 1998, they conducted a survey with the help of the directorate of social welfare to ensure no more women joined the profession 90 sex workers in 35 families were found to be engaged in.

When they conducted their first awareness and condom distribution camp on August 11, 1998, a mere handful attended. But the couple went ahead and applied for 50 ration cards, which was rejected out of hand. Abha then wrote to Khairati Lal Bhola, president of the Bharatiya Patita Uddhar Sabha. Armed with a central government order stating sex workers be given ration cards within 72 hours of application, the Samiti reapplied successfully.

Their next task was to secure water and electricity for the colony. "Unfortunately," says Abharani, "we had to resort to force before these basic facilities were granted." The Samiti's also conducted eight health camps in the area and recently set up a Rs 7-lakh project funded by the state aids Cell. It's setting up an aids clinic which will also be a part-time schoolhouse for sex workers' children. Another project for economic rehabilitation awaits approval. A rice mill meant to provide Rs 2,500 a month to 121 women is to be set up shortly. The Rs 77-lakh project will provide alternate employment; profits distributed as bonus. A school for sex workers' children, destroyed in last year's cyclone, is being reconstructed.

Speaking of the cyclone, Madan and Abha were the only ones who thought of the sex workers during the calamity. Ignoring the damage to their own house, the two saw to it that food, clothes and building materials were provided to the sex workers, who even contributed Rs 6,000 to cyclone relief.

It hasn't been easy. Madan was suspended from his job when he spoke up against exploitation of sex workers, his joint family broke up as his brother left him and the people of the colony have threatened to evict the family if they dared to set up their office in the area. But the couple's undeterred. The sex workers were invited to Madan's younger brother's wedding and the family's part of all their festivals such as Dussehra, Diwali and Holi. "During Rakhi there's a long queue in front of my house and when any of us is ill, there's no dearth of willing helpers from my sisters," says Madanbhai, as he's affectionately called by the sex workers. What more can one ask for? To contact Madan, write to: Abharani Choudhary, secretary, Orissa Patita Uddhar Samiti, mig flat, Chandrasekharpur, Bhubaneshwar.

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