[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted with a volunteer who is not a sex worker themself, and works as an external facilitator with the community. We wish to platform their work as it moves away from the conflation of sex work and human trafficking, while advocating for the community’s worker rights.
However, now and in the future, we encourage contributions from sex workers themselves, or interviews that centre on their lived experiences, over the work & approach of external volunteers. We also invite input from the community on how we can make Gaysi better accessible to include their voices.]
In the final week of February this year, the Aazaadi Foundation inaugurated the ‘Library of Hope’ for sex workers and their children in Lucknow. Decorated all over with hand painted banners focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals put forth by the United Nations, the library teems over with books donated not only by Lucknowites, but by people from all over the country. A little before the big day I got the chance to sit down with Sayed Raza Hussain Zaidi, who, along with his colleagues, Harshita Ahuja and Ritika Rachel Wilson, was at the forefront of this initiative. Clearly excited about the possibility of positive change that the library represented, Raza was equal parts reflective on the journey and hopeful about the future.
Q. What aspect of the Aazaadi Foundation’s journey helped you decide to focus on this project?
This journey actually began in 2018, when I was at Pride and amongst the many slogans that the community was raising, one particular individual said, ‘Sex Work is Work’. It hit me that while all of us would echo that statement passionately in the moment, we probably wouldn’t do something about it going forward.
Informally, Aazaadi has been involved with rescue missions related to child trafficking for about six years now through our association with Childline. That has also given us opportunities to be exposed to the government initiatives surrounding sex workers’ rights. What we realised after reflecting on the nature of those programs was that they were focused intensely and wholly on the prevention and testing of HIV/AIDS only. The gaze of the HIVN program that the government runs is extremely reductionist because it feels like it is the need to protect the ‘customer’ that they anticipate, who will interact with the sex worker, and not the [sex workers] themselves. Essentially, it focuses on the service, not the personhood. None of the major sex work networks are in Lucknow, and due to a complete lack of media narrative when it comes to sex work in Uttar Pradesh, the actual issues and problems that sex workers might face become invisibilised. We wanted to change that.
Q. What was the first step that the Aazaadi Foundation decided to take in that direction?
Well, our first step was actually to reach out and understand what kind of network there is in the city, because we wanted sex workers not to be silent benificiaries but participating partners in this process. The first thing that we realized was that Lucknow has individual sex workers, instead of a system of brothels, and therefore there are colonies through which we organized group discussions. The initial interactions between the foundation and the women was led by Ritika and Harshita, who essentially worked on understanding the needs and wants that were being represented in the rooms that we would hold these sessions in. The first immediate need seemed to be access to counselling and life-skill building. Based on our discussions, we formulated a ‘Meri Marzi’ project, highlighting the right of consent of sex workers. Through the project, we aimed to create two major networks – the first focusing on legal aid-related resources and the second for mental health wellness with self-esteem-building taking centre stage. However, while we were in the middle of these interventions, the pandemic hit the world and their immediate needs, obviously, completely changed. One of the women that we were in touch with called and informed us that there was nothing in their homes for their families to eat as the government ration wasn’t reaching them. So then that is what we ended up focusing on as an emergency initiative. We ended up raising more than three and a half lakhs, and were thankfully able to provide ration to more than 300 families.
Q. And how did that particular project lead to the Library of Hope becoming a vision?
What happened was that during the conversations related to the immediate needs that were arising due to the pandemic, the women talked to us about how none of the children in the colonies had any online classes going on, and some had to withdraw from school due to poverty being exacerbated by the lockdown. More than anything, they wondered if something could be done to create a safe learning space for the children. Showing the kind of motivation that has made this possible, one of the sex workers offered a room in her home. We actually began educational interactions with more than 100 children aged between 8 to 21 years, and then we realized that what is needed is a more sustainable model – a safe learning space that goes beyond the pandemic. What we also wanted was to make sure that it is something that is led by the community of sex workers themselves. Today, the library includes a projector, over 800 books, and educational items made completely [out of] sustainable materials. But more importantly, it holds a sewing machine, so that the young woman from the community who has volunteered to monitor the library can actually sew while doing that – and teach others to do the same – so that funds from the outside are not a necessity anymore. Thus, the library is self-sustained by the community, increasing the level of self-dependence and agency.
Q. There are valid concerns amongst activists in general about the NGOization of sex work, and how that inevtably leads to a ‘rescue’ gaze instead of a ‘rights’ gaze. How does this project move away from that?
First of all, giving sex workers a platform for raising their voice instead of speaking for them is a huge part of our project because we wanted to work with them instead of formulating interventions ‘for’ them. Secondly, at no point during the interactions did we ever focus on having a conversation focused on asking them to leave the work [that they do]. No part of Aazaadi’s model is focused on anything other than love, consent, and self-esteem building through self-dependence. Our focus is on empowering the women in the community to make informed choices and conscious decisions, by creating a network to ensure that the resources that are out there become available to them. We see ourselves as facilitators, not experts. We very strongly believe that anything and everything that we have been able to do so far has been because of the support and guidance of leaders within the sex workers’ community.
Q. Before we end, could you shine some light on how someone interested in the project can contribute to it or volunteer for it?
Of course! You can reach us on Instagram, where we are present, at @aazaadinet. We also have a podcast, a magazine, and other projects that we work on – including various events that we organize. You can also reach out to Harshita (@_harshita.a) or Ritika (@ritikarachel01) directly or write to me (@queer.feminist) at any point in time.