40 year old Jayamma Bhandari is famous for uplifting the otherwise ignored and downgraded sex workers in India. She helps women sex workers in getting a respectable source of income. Through Chaitanya Mahila Mandali, she is instilling skills and training them in livelihood courses so that these women come out of their dis respectable job and move on with dignity and financial independence.
Jayamma Bhandari herself has a dark past which is no less haunting and disturbing than those of other women stuck in the flesh trade. She became an orphan at a tender age of three and grew up in utter poverty. She was a burden to her extended family. To get rid of her, they got her married to a man who physically and mentally harassed her for money. When Jayamma’s family denied giving in to his wishes, her husband pushed her into flesh trade. Jayamma even considered killing herself several times. But her little daughter was always a source of strength and courage to her. After she herself got free from the murky business of flesh trade she decided to help others out. Currently, through her organisation, Jayamma Bhandari has given a new lease of life to over 5,000 women and more than 3,500 children.
Jayamma’s Chaitanya Mahila Mandali (CMM) works in high-risk slum communities to raise awareness on sexual rights and reproductive health. It also trains these women to learn skills and take up some livelihood courses. Very recently, Jayamma was conferred with the Nari Shakti (Women Empowerment) Award on International Women’s Day 8th March 2018. Jayamma Bhandari is fondly called as ‘amma’. She also won the Exemplar Award in 2017.
Once by luck, Jayamma met Jai Singh Thomas, who worked with an Non Government Organisation (NGO). He encouraged Jayamma to set up an organisation that will impart vocational skills to sex workers’ as he had noticed her impressive leadership qualities in an event. He offered her the job of coordinator. In 2001, Jayamma left her job to set up Chaitanya Mahila Mandali in Andhra Pradesh. In an interview she told about the hardships of convincing women to move on from their dark past. She said,
“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 environment. They have many questions: will they be able to earn enough to support themselves and their kids? Won’t their situation be more miserable if the world doesn’t accept them due to their past? We have the challenge to win their confidence and persuade them by offering help and support. Forcible rehabilitation doesn’t work in such cases and, as such, de-addiction, counseling, and slow, long-term therapy become necessary to restore their lives.” -Jayamma Bhandari
Prostitution in India is illegal. On the question whether sex work should be legalized in India, Jayamma says ‘No’. She says “First the law needs to be in place. Policymakers, police and activists need continuous sensitisation on this issue.”
At present, Jayamma Bhandari is undertaking a degree course and is currently in her second year of college. She has won several awards in the past 18 years. Some of these awards and recognition include Excellence Award for National Social Activity for Outstanding Individual Achievements and Distinguished Services to the Nation, on behalf of CMM, the best state-level HIV Prevention Award, Global Peace Award (2015), and Seva Ratna Award (2015). We wish her all the best for all her future plans!