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by Jenn Warren

During the Malmo University Communication for Development Voice and Matter Conference that took place from 17-20 September 2014, Andrea Cornwall told the story of the influential sex workers’ collective in India, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the initiative Save Us From Saviours, and their video responses to the sensational and derogatory VICE​ film “Prostitutes of God” in 2010 [1].

A collective of empowered sex workers in a traditionally misogynistic community, the women and men of VAMP promote their life choices as exactly that, choice. Women talk of their ability to buy what they want, choose their clients, demand condom usage, and enjoying a free and independent lifestyle. While I only know of their life experiences through their videos, the self-assurance and power they display calls up Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach (1980, 1984, 1993, 1999) and concept that “development is about the freedom of choice in the personal, the social, the economic and the political sphere” [2].

In the interest of sharing their own story, VAMP allowed VICE journalist Sarah Harris into the community. Harris’s patronising approach came as a shock and betrayal to the participants. The video was just another extension of the development narrative, describing a rural and “backwards” village, othering the Devadasi women, and placing Harris – and VICE – above their subjects through word choice, framing and the absence of journalism ethics (such as providing consent forms and concealing identities of HIV positive people and minors). The video was produced and edited in Harris’s own self-interest.

In response to the VICE film, VAMP and the community advocacy organisation Sangram sent an open letter to VICE disputing aspects of the film and recorded the below video directed to Harris, calling her out on unethical practices. The main disputed points in the film were [3]:

  • Girls dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma will become sex slaves
  • 3,000 girls are dedicated each year
  • Anita is a brothel owner (she is a sex worker not a brothel owner)
  • Religious ritual allows poor families to pimp out their daughters
  • Devadasi ceremony condones child prostitution
  • Families are offered a fee for their daughters
  • Garish Hindu icons; and fat Hindu gods, blue skin and gold bikinis

Sangram Founder and Secretary General Meena Seshu introduces Save us from Saviours this way, “Countering the distorted perspective in the film, women from VAMP present their incisive views about sex work; religion and faith; livelihoods; issues of consent; ethics and cross-cultural sensitivities while making documentary films” [4].

Harris apparently made a few minor changes to the film but has not responded in further detail to the collective, only saying this in a live chat hosted by VICE after the film’s release [5]:

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Sangram also launched their own community production film unit, Sangli Talkies, and Seshu shares why they have undertaken this powerful initiative on her YouTube page [4]:

“In the age of the internet, women in countries far away who used to be the objects of white people’s gaze with no right of reply now have access to the representations that are made of them, and the technological means to answer back. A naive westerner may seize the headlines, but there’s now scope for there to be a debate and to bring those who in the past would have remained voiceless victims into that debate to represent themselves.It is a great opportunity to put the record straight.”

Seshu herself says that along the way, she has learnt a lot from the women she works with, “The one thing I’ve always believed in is that we don’t listen to women enough, even in the feminist movement. With sex workers, we don’t listen to them at all” [6].

An Open Society Foundation profile on Seshu states, “For many, prostitution is synonymous with exploitation, existing for the benefit of men so that they can have a better sexual life. However, by listening to sex workers themselves, Seshu has come to view this interpretation as flawed. In reality, ‘it’s for these women to make money.’ It is a distinction that Seshu claims is ‘very clear to the women'” [6].

“Nothing about us without us” is one of VAMP’s mottos, and the about page of their website succinctly says, “Save us from Saviours offers a powerful message to the development sector. A testament to the power of collective action the film is also a reminder that rights and recognition, rather than rescue and rehabilitation, offer a far more lasting pathway to empowerment and equity” [7].

The group, with Sangram’s Sangli Talkies, has created five films since the project began in 2010, each one shedding light an aspect of life in their community.

The film Save us from Saviours, a collaboration between VAMP, Sangli Talkies, Andrea Cornwall, Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, filmmaker Kat Mansoor and Animal Monday, is a perfect example of community-driven media, created in a participatory way, to dispel rumours and share information about VAMP and the people who live and work with them.

In closing, as Cornwall said in her Voice and Matter talk, “Be brave! Be real!” [1].

[1] Cornwall, Andrea. 17 September 2014: Reframing Development from Assistance to Global Justice, Voice and Matter Conference, Roskilde University.

[2] Kleine, D. 2010: ICT4WHAT?—Using the choice framework to operationalise the capability approach to development, Journal of International Development 22:  674–692.

[3] Acker, L. J. 17 October 2010: Prostitutes of God: VICE Magazine Documentary Subjects Fight Back, Live Love Leslie with L. J. Acker.

[4] Seshu, Meena. 25 September 2010: VAMP responds to betrayal by Prostitutes of God film, YouTube.

[5] VBS.tv. 2010: CoverItLive Event: Prostitutes of God. Live chat replay.

[6] Thomas, Rachel. 26 July 2006: Spotlight on Meena Seshu, SANGRAM: Sex Worker Rights in Rural India, Open Society Foundations. (Originally appeared in the Spring 2006 Sexual Health and Rights Program (SHARP) Newsletter)

[7] VAMP. 2015: Save Us From Saviours website.

* 10 October 2015 * As part of the assignment, I visit the blogs of other NMICT4D groups. Today, I came across a similar post from Group 1’s ICT4D in India blog “Sex workers are not always victims”, and submitted this comment:

“Good article about VAMP and the Save us from Saviours initiative, such a good example of ICT4D and participatory/community-driven media. The work VAMP, Sangram and their film unit Sangli Talkies are doing, is inspiring and the power of their voices is clear. It reminds me of the short essay by Alan O’Conner about the Bolivian miners and their important role in society. “Through their radio stations, the miners’ organisations have played an important role in shaping the political position of the Bolivian union movement” (O’Connor 1990, p107). We can easily see the power of the VAMP collective, the way they have amplified their voices, and “the role of communication technology in representing non-dominant viewpoints and helping create a politically conscious and active community” (O’Connor 1990, p108-109) [in the Save us from Saviours initiative].

About Jenn

Jenn provides photography, communications and Communication for Development services for a range of humanitarian and development clients, and leads photography and communications workshops for youth and professionals. These days, she spends much of her time with the Sport for Development organisation, Grassroot Soccer.
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  1. David Leeming

    Hi Jenn, a great article, very interesting. I was trying to combine the concept of empowered sex workers, with the viewpoint expressed by Harris that questions how genuine that empowerment can be if there are few alternatives for the women. You rightly point to Sen’s capabilities approach which theorises human development with emphasis on freedom and choice. As you know, Kleine has put together her Choice Framework from extensions of the capabilities approach, and it does offer some useful ways to explore the dialectic between structure and agency. I have found it useful recently in regard to teachers’ appropriation of digital pedagogy (my individual assignment for this course). However, the approach is best suited for individual capabilities. There are some extensions that deal with group or “external” capabilities, eg. Foster and Handy (2008). So my question would be, could we use external or group capabilities as an empowerment approach leading out of the sex work situation, that respects individual choices rather than dismisses them as not being genuine ?
    Foster E.F. and Handy C. (2008) External Capabilities, OPHI Working Paper Series, Oxford Poverty & Human
    Development Initiative

    • Thank you for your thoughts David. I agree in questioning the quality or reality of empowerment when there are such limited alternatives for women in a certain community or environment. You make a strong point regarding the continuation into Kleine’s Choice Framework, connection between structure and agency, and question as to whether we can look at a certain group capabilities – and in turn choices. I believe it would be possible, and powerful, to look at external/group capabilities in particular when it comes to a specific community’s treatment of women and their access to choice (finances, work, education, free time, etc). I think the REFLECT Circle is a way to look deeper into this issue.

      This takes me back to a comment I wrote over the weekend on Christopher’s Group 1 article, “The Digital Divide in India”. I wrote:

      In “ICT4WHAT?”, Kleine (quoting Alsop and Heinsohn) points to ‘degrees of empowerment’ – “existence of choice, use of choice and achievement of choice” [1]… One approach that could work is to start smaller and less ambitious. To remove technology and go back to the ground, literally. The REFLECT approach, started by ActionAid International, brings together Paulo Freire’s theories of social change with participatory methodologies and rural appraisal. From the examples I have seen, the process can be a very powerful experience for citizens who engage with it and then become engaged citizens [2].

      Reflect-Action “was developed in the 1990s through pilot projects in Bangladesh, Uganda and El Salvador and is now used by over 500 organisations in over 70 countries worldwide. ActionAid is directly associated with over 700 circles run by its partners. These circles have become formidable source of ideas for change” [3].

      In particular, check out this video of a Reflect Circle in action in Samistipur, Bihar, India. To begin, the #ruralwomen undertake a mapping exercise of their community to better understand their physical access to services such as the school and health clinic. The process encourages the women to talk about challenging personal and social issues with each other, which they say has improved their self-esteem and ability to speak out at home on issues such as girl-child education [3]. An inspiring video that uses local solutions to tackle local problems…

      [1] Kleine, D. 2010: ICT4WHAT?—Using the choice framework to operationalise the capability approach to development, Journal of International Development 22: 674–692.

      [2] http://www.reflect-action.org/

      [3] Reflect Circle. 1 March 2011. ActionAid International.

      • David Leeming

        Hey thanks Jenn! Great advice. In fact I have heard of Reflect Action and other forms of PRA but the closest I have come to them has been community mapping in a rural development (micro-projects) programme. However that same programme is now considering community monitoring and evaluation of their local schools – through a report card approach. So this is very topical and I’ll look into it. Can you share the link to the Bihar video you mentioned? It doesn’t seem to be active in the comments. Thanks!

      • Hi David, yes I found that the youtube links wouldn’t come up as text in the comment as it tried to load the video unsuccessfully. The REFLECT Action website has the video I mention on their main page, check it out here: http://www.reflect-action.org/

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