Drama to Empower: Can theater reduce likelihood of prostitution?

Ashali Bhandari, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 4 August 2016

An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 women work in Mumbai’s infamous Kamathipura, Asia’s largest red light district. Earningsfor these women can be as low as Rs. 30 to Rs. 40 ($0.45 to $0.65) per client, resulting in severe exploitation by brothel owners and abysmal living conditions. Forty per cent of the women working in Kamathipura are homeless and seventy per cent are HIV positive.

In Kamathipura, nine out of ten women working as prostitutes have been trafficked from India or from neighboring countries. Over 25 per cent of the girls are trafficked into prostitution before they turn 16, and 65 per cent are trafficked before they turn 20. Many young girls who live in Kamathipura are exposed to the sex industry at a young age, playing underneath their mothers’ beds while their mothers service clients.

Second-generation prostitution can be prevented through the empowerment of young girls, says Namita Khatu, the program director at Apne Aap Women’s Collective. The Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC) was formed in 1998 as an anti-trafficking organization serving the women and children of Kamathipura. Focusing on distinct demographic groups, they provide targeted outreach in terms of health, financial assistance, skill-based training, education, and social services to women involved in brothel-based prostitution, including daughters of women working in brothels (called Umeed), and young girls living in Kamathipura (called Udaan), and toddlers of women working in brothels (called Umang).

AAWC’s work with Udaan focuses on education, health services, and skill-based, recreational activities, one of which includes theater. Khatu believes that a medium like theater teaches young girls to express themselves: "Their exposure to violence and other illicit activities at a young age (whether it be directly or indirectly) hampers their development. Theater is a way by which they can enhance their imagination and become more confident and vocal about their feelings."

A group called The Theatre Act facilitates the weekly workshops for young girls. Kalyan Choudhury, an instructor with the group, said that the workshops have been a creative outlet for the girls to deal with their troubled past. Through theater, the girls can grow individually and together, allowing them to become more resilient. "Initially, the girls were extremely reserved and would hide when it was time for class. Now they wait for Sunday and enjoy playing together. Through theater, they work in groups, they learn how to ask questions and become connected to people and society. Now even when one girl is absent, the others feel sad she is missing the class."

During the workshops, the girls partake in group activities, trust exercises, and improv games, which allow them to build their confidence through public speaking, achieving set goals (like winning tasks), and working together.

Over the course of 2016, the drama classes will be supplemented by set design workshops to come together into a full production by the end of the year. By building their confidence and curiosity, fostering empathy, and instilling a sense of communal responsibility, drama provides the girls with a new set of skills that will become a gateway out of the brothels of Kamathipura.

Photo credit: Apne Aap Women's Collective

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