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Competition winner!! Shanoor Seervai

Shanoor is a winner of the humanitarian reporting grant competition! Read her story and be inspired:

My project documents the lives of sex workers and their children in Falkland Road, one of the largest red light districts in Mumbai, India. The purpose of the project is to listen to and record the daily challenges these women and children face without sensationalizing or victimizing them. I intend to spend time with them in the brothels where they live and work, talking about the issues that matter most to them.

I want to tell these stories as humanely as possible, from the seemingly mundane difficulties they encounter when they want to open a bank account to their frequent confrontations with the police. I also want to explore the relationships between sex workers and their children, most of whom live with their mothers and therefore grow up witnessing Mumbai's sex trade firsthand. I envision putting together a collection of stories, including profiles of the women -- perhaps the ones who are more open to in-depth interviews about their pasts and how they came to be sex workers. I also want to include some more narrative pieces -- for example, about a particularly difficult encounter with the police or a client, or how the children occupy themselves when their mothers are at work. I will also interview clients, pimps and policemen in Falkland Road, but the purpose of these interviews is to corroborate what the women say.

The women are the focus of the project because I want to demystify and destigmatize sex work by spending time with these women during the day, when they are not working but cooking or helping their children get ready for school. Without denying the brutality and hardship they encounter in their field of work, I do not want to portray them as unidimensional victims either.

The stories of marginalized and vulnerable populations are often left out of mainstream discourse. When I first volunteered with sex workers in 2009, I was ashamed at my own lack of prior knowledge about the adversities this community, living less than half-an-hour away from my home, face. My school, like several others in Mumbai, ran donation drives for the poor, the elderly and the disabled; we were encouraged to volunteer with slum children in an after-school program held on our premises. But no one wants to talk to school children about sex workers, so we grow up unaware and ignore the issue all together. In 2009, I found that when I told people in my social circle where I was volunteering, their initial response was one of discomfort and disbelief. I believe that one of the first steps that must be taken to help these women gain access to basic services, like clean water and healthcare, and fight against the pimps and police who exploit them, is to acknowledge their existence. The stories of sex workers need to be told because they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. In order for the lives of sex workers to change, their stories must be heard.

Another reason this story must be told is because of the sheer desperation that I felt when I spoke to the women. I had worked with underprivileged communities in the past, but had never encountered a population so hardened and resigned to its circumstances. For example, one of the HIV-positive women I worked with died of Tuberculosis less than two months after I first met her. Her roommates and colleagues faced her death with an acceptance and fatalism that still haunts me. Most sex workers are migrants from other parts of India, and have already experienced the difficult process of being uprooted from their homes and families, and I want to capture -- in their words -- what it is like to cope with the loss and transience that their work entails.

One of the reasons that I moved back to India after living in North America for seven years is that I wanted to work with and write about marginalized communities, particularly sex workers. The opportunity I have had to study at Brown University in the US has taught me to think critically about global issues and connect them to local challenges. I want to use the skills and experiences I gained abroad to effect positive change in my home community. My excellent research and writing skills as well as my ability to think analytically as well as creatively will help me to execute this project.

My experience working with marginalized communities in Mumbai, most significantly with Apne Aap Women's Collective, an NGO that supports sex workers and their children in Falkland Road, in 2009 is what inspired this project. At the time, I was a volunteer during my three month summer vacation from Brown. I have wanted to go back to Falkland Road since then, because I was fascinated with the stories these women shared with me. I am aware of the challenges of interviewing sex workers and asking them personal questions and gaining their trust. But I believe that they would like their voices to be heard, and I can tell their stories in a compelling manner to audiences in India and abroad. Having grown up in Mumbai, I am familiar and deeply connected with the city, its diverse neighborhoods and the way they operate. I speak Hindi and have a basic understanding of Marathi, two of the most commonly-spoken languages in Falkland road.

Contact: shanoorseervai@gmail.com