Jayamma's story From victim to crusader for sex workers

Jayamma Bhandari was orphaned at the age of three and spend her childhood in grim poverty. She was forced into the sex trade by her husband. But unlike other victims who are forced into the murky business, she decided to challenge her destiny – becoming, in the process, an inspiration for many other women like her.
Now 40-year-old, Jayamma runs the Chaitanya Mahila Mandali (CMM) to help sex workers leave the exploitative profession and find respectable livelihoods. CMM works in high-risk slum communities to raise awareness on sexual rights and reproductive health, and takes up skilling and livelihood courses.
According to the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO), there are 1.65 million registered sex workers in the country – the actual numbers would be much higher – who lead very sordid lives. Though they are not in the profession by choice, they have to bear the stigma associated with it, feeling ostracised, alone, unwanted and disposable. There are the ramifications of the exposure to various sexually transmitted diseases too.
Jayamma is credited with directly impacting the lives of some 5,000 women in sex work and nearly a thousand of them are now engaged in alternative livelihoods. Also, over 3,500 children of sex workers have been provided vocational training through her efforts.
Fondly called "Amma", or mother, her efforts were acknowledged by the government and she received the Nari Shakti (Women Power) Award on International Women's Day last month. Earlier, the Confederation of Indian Industry conferred her with the Exemplar Award in 2017.
Jayamma grew up in her uncle's home in Nakrakal in Nalgonda district, about 300 km from Hyderabad. After a tough childhood and a difficult adolescence, she was married to a man in Hyderabad who, soon after she had a baby, started pressurising her to join the flesh trade.
Her refusal led to her being tortured, both physically and mentally. With minimal education and no one to support her, she succumbed to the wishes of her husband.
Selling not only her body, but also her soul, Jayamma toyed with the idea of suicide many times. But the thought of what would happen to her daughter after her death – that she too could be pushed into the same trade – gave Jayamma the strength to go on.
For Jayamma, it was a meeting Jai Singh Thomas, an NGO executive from Hyderabad, that proved a turning point. He encouraged her to leave sex work and do advocacy for the community. With Thomas' help, she decided to set up an organisation that would enable sex workers to find viable alternative professions. Thus began her journey as a change agent.
Now Jayamma – who finally mustered the courage to part ways with her husband in 2012 – and her organisation reach out to victims like her, counsel and try to convince them that there can be a better ways to lead their lives.
"It's really a daunting task to convince them as some of these women have become addicted to alcohol, drugs, smoking, sex and living in that vitiating environment. We have the challenge to win their confidence and persuade them by offering help and support," she said.
The tragic life of sex workers is not limited to them – children born to such women are bigger victims. Being vulnerable, they usually end up finding themselves trapped in this or allied professions.
Jayamma felt that working to prevent the victimisation of children of sex workers was important. She set up Chaithanya Happy Home in 2011 where children of sex workers are provided with basic necessities. With the aim of changing societal attitudes stigmatising sex workers – and with belief in building a system equipped and sensitive to address the issue of trafficking – Chaithanya also conducts sensitisation training for police officers in Telangana.


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