Caught in the trifling labyrinth of life, Manju Vyas, a corporate professional felt the need to do something meaningful on her free weekends. She started volunteering for the Apne Aap Women’s Collective, eventually becoming its CEO.
Read her inspiring journey of breaking barriers, moulding paths and giving a second life to the sex workers of Mumbai and their children. From overcoming the scathing looks bleeding from the red lanes of Kamathipura, to gaining respect and the title of ‘didi’, Manju Vyas is the go-to lady for the most neglected women community.
What made you take this less travelled road?
There were others doing medical intervention in this community and that was it. They deserved to live a respectable life. I heard some stories that made me ponder over greater things in life. I also got emotionally disturbed, but then I realised the bigger purpose. Empathy is of no use if you can’t help others. This made me take the daring journey. We help these women come out of their trauma and provide them with self-sustaining dignified employment options. Our objective expanded when we started interacting with the daughters of these women. So now we even prevent next and inter-generation prostitution through our projects.
How did you break the barriers in a community that is so closed and disconnected to the world outside?
“If you have dropped a 100 rupee note in a puddle, you will have to get your hands dirty to take it out. That is what we are doing, going inside the dirt and cleaning it up.”
It was very challenging and difficult in the first few years. The community did not know us and they thought that we might leak out their information. They did not even allow us to stand at their doorsteps. It took time in making them understand that we wanted to lessen their suffering. However, as we started showing compassion and sensitivity, they realised our underlying objective and started showing co-operation.
What inspires you to excel and keep going everyday?
I love working for them. I derive my strengths from these girls, they are my pillars. I see them grow daily and feel proud of them.
Share one of your success stories.
Once a sex worker came to our centre along with her small daughter. We casually asked her what she wanted to become on growing up. To my horrific surprise, she told me that she wanted to be a brothel owner. On asking her the reason, she very innocently said that they get to keep all the money. I realised the kind of impact these girls have. After this eye-opening incident, we got her enrolled in our program. Today, this girl has grown up to become a chef in a 7-star cruise liner. She now is a role model for a young girl in the community that loves to cook.
Which are some of the women that your organisation has helped in giving a second life?
Majority of these women are the victims of human trafficking, and some of their stories, they still give me goosebumps. These are girls who have been betrayed by their own loved ones. These women are deceived by their own parents, who have sold them off for a some small amount of money at mere age of 12. Some of them are shown fancy dreams of Mumbai by their boyfriends. They come here to get married only to find out that they are fooled not by their lovers, rather brothel owners. We have given a new beginning to all of them.
What sort of activities do you do so that they have a positive impact on their life? What makes them empowered?
Besides getting them enrolled in regular schools and colleges, providing them with the medical and nutritional support, we organise excursions to various NGOs and MNCs. We give them positive role models through The Lighthouse Project that provides a progressive mentoring platform.
What is the best about being a woman in today’s world?
Because of the genuine power that a women has – whether it is emotional, social or intellectual, women are capable of doing anything that you can think of today. That’s the beauty of being a woman. She can successfully play many roles; she can be many things at once. That’s the intelligence of a woman.
When on a wanderlust, where would you set off to?
Africa. I love the wildlife and the people there. I would love to help that community. I love surrounding myself around nature– jungles, rivers, waterfalls and mountains, each and every natural element inspires me. If I am given 100 lives, I would like to be born at 100 different places and help people.
Which is your favourite place?
Alleppy in Kerala. I just love the backwaters. It is so surreal.
As told to Winnie Karnik