Budhwar Peth, a red-light area in the heart of Pune city, is home to many commercial sex workers and their children who have been ostracised by society. But thanks to Seema Waghmode, their life has been taking a positive direction in the past 26 years in which Seema a.k.a. their ‘Aaji’ (grandmother) has been with them.Always inclined towards social work, Seema immersed herself in the field after she completed her studies and worked with leprosy patients for many years. After this, in 1993, she started her own social work organization, Kayakalpa. In the same year, she joined the government’s research team to work on HIV/AIDS detection and awareness under which she was entrusted with the responsibility to work for commercial sex workers.“When I told my husband that I would be working in red-light areas, all he said that it was a challenging task with many hurdles, but if I truly wanted to work in this area, I would have to give it my all and never turn back!” she shared. But when she entered the red-light area, she realized that medical assistance and awareness won’t be enough to help a community which has been shunned for hundreds of years and exploited.“As an adult when I first stepped inside Budhwar Peth, I suddenly recalled that had been here before! There was an oil mill nearby, and as a child, my father would take me there to shop. I still remember how he used to clench my hand tightly every time we crossed this lane. Now, I knew the reason, but wanted to change it forever,” she said.At the same time, shutting down their prime source of livelihood wasn’t a solution.“How can you help someone if you take away their only source of food? Most of the women here have fallen prey to the trade and are pressurized and exploited by various agents forcing them to continue it. Life outside this is but an illusion to them. So, breaking this into a hope of reality was difficult, and we needed to first have training, awareness and rehabilitation facilities to show that their lives are worth much more than they know,” she said.
“When people got to know that I was working with CSWs many asked me why I was doing such dirty work. Some even used the phrase, ‘cleaning the drain.’ This only made me more determined,” she added. “Building that trust was one of the most difficult challenges, and initially, the sex workers would not even allow me inside their homes. But, then I realized that I had not gone through the trauma they had and that too in a tender age. Every day, for even a Rs 100 note, many of them have to allow their bodies to be exploited. Their trust in the world was gone, and I had to do my best to earn it.”Eventually, she earned their trust and succeeded in empowering more than 10,000 sex workers as many of them opted for alternative occupations like beauticians and tailors and some even joined her in helping the community.“However, there are few who have continued in the prostitution business for a better income. My work is to ensure that they know that they are not alone and that we will take care of them. And, if anyone wants to get out, then we extend a helping hand,” Seema said.
She has also set up Rev. Haribhau Waghmode Patil Pratishthan (RHWPP), almost 120 kilometers away from Pune, where 35 rescued children are living.“One of the major focus of our work is rehabilitation, not only for the sex workers but their children, who are one of the worst affected. While the idea was always there, it was after a jarring incident when a hungry child in desperation asked his mother to take a customer, that the gravity of the situation hit me hard. That’s why this place is far away from the area so that we can provide them with new lives of their choice. I want to give them the life that my children have,” said Seema.“They are people just like you and me; they are not puppets. Please treat them with that respect,” she added.