At 7.30, on a bright March morning in Goa, the sussegad (Goan for laidback) city is still rubbing sleep out of its eyes. But Salma Rehman of the Katta Baina area is already up and about. “I am getting late,” she frets, as she steals one last look in the palm-sized mirror behind the door of her tiny room, where she stays with her husband and two kids. The room — with just enough room for five people to stand — costs her Rs 750 per month. Running expenses are extra. But the 21-year-old doesn’t mind it. “I have earned all this with izzat (respect),” she smiles, as she walks through the crowded basti to catch the bus for Swift Wash — the laundry at the Sancoale industrial estate in Vasco. At the laundry, there are 50 of her ‘colleagues’ waiting to start the six-hour morning shift: collecting, washing, ironing and delivering clothes, uniforms and linen. “We now cater to 19 clients, mostly in North Goa — including the Taj hotels,” she adds with pride.
Cleaning up their act
Swift Wash would have passed off as a regular laundry. But there’s a small difference: it’s manned by rehabilitated female sex workers from the Baina beach — Goa’s notorious red light area that was partially demolished in 2004 — who are trying to wash away their past, iron out the painful creases and looking at a ‘clean’ future. Most of these girls were trafficked from neighbouring states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to Goa for sex work.
So, when the local NGO Arz started the laundry project in August 2006, eyebrows were raised. “People would smirk and say, yeh dhandewali kya kaam karengi (what work can these prostitutes do?)” remembers Salma, adding: “They still say it, but only behind our backs.”
There were other problems for the girls to deal with. Explains Arun Pandey, director, Arz. “For every sex worker, there are ten parasites feeding on her earnings and there are certain expectations from her. It’s difficult for her to break this chain of dependence.”
In Salma’s case for instance, earlier she was earning upto Rs 1,000 a day. “Here, I started with Rs 1,500 — that too at the end of the month. Now I get Rs 2,000, but I have learnt to manage.”
Her colleague Maria talks about the ‘timing’ change. “Back then, our days would start post 9 pm, and end early morning. Now, it’s very different.”
There’s also a lifestyle change: giving up alcohol, for instance. “Alcohol would numb the senses to a rape every night, to someone putting a cigarette butt on your body,” explains Salma matter-of-factly.
There have been mishaps too. Like the time when a batch of hospital uniforms were all accidentally bleached. The girls laugh now, but back then, it was an experience that reduced them to tears. That day, Maria, who didn’t even know ‘how to talk’, offered to do the damage control. “They were really upset and gave me a good dressing down. But I took it calmly, apologized and convinced them that this wouldn’t happen again,” she recalls. Since then, the group banks on her ‘marketing skills.’
“Now, I can talk to clients, I can talk to you. But I have spent hours crying to come to this stage,” says Maria, who perks up immediately when you ask about her family. A husband and a family is, after all, a final stamp of social acceptance for a ‘girl like her’.
Business as usual and ties that bind
It’s 2 pm now — time for a shift change. The incoming evening batch exchange notes with the outgoing one. That’s when project director Julianna Lohar points out how Swift Wash has evolved — from just a workplace to a place of bonding. Last year, when one of the girls got married, the rest of the gang was right there, helping her with the bridal make-up. They were also there when the cracks started to show. “The boy’s family refuses to accept her and the boy refuses to leave them. So she is staying away from him. It’s the support the girls have given her that has made her take a stand,” says Julianna.
While the laundry at Vasco has come a full circle emotionally, financially, it is yet to break even. “We keep telling each other not to waste electricity and motivate the slow ones to catch up,” says Reshma. “This is our business and as it grows, it will be good for all of us.”
For Salma, who is now ready to catch a bus back to her tiny room in Katta Baina, the laundry harbors all her dreams: money for a small business venture for her son, savings for her daughter’s marriage. “Apna life toh khatam hai (my life’s over), but the kids should’ve something to fall back on,” she says.
Then, she goes on to tell you how she wants a better house, a better life for her and her husband. You realise this is not the same woman who had ‘erased’ the tattoo of the name of a man she once loved — with a knife — after he left her for another mistress. The scar is still there on her wrist. But Salma has moved on. Her life is not really over. She has a reason to live now.
(Some names have been changed)