The story of Lata Mane’s struggle out of exploitation towards being a changemaker is awe-inspiring and extraordinary.
At the age of 15, unable to bear the atrocities of her step mother, Lata ran away from home in Karga, Karnataka. After working as a daily wage labourer in a couple of places in Maharashtra and Goa, she married a fellow worker at the age of 17. Later, her husband sold her to a brothel in Mumbai and took her seven month son away., A Alone and without any help or support in the bustling city of Mumbai, the only livelihood option available to her was sex work. She took up this option, but the entire money she earned went to the brothel owner in exchange for regular food and space. She later married a regular customer who had two daughters.
With the daughters in the picture, Lata started repainting the canvas of her life. She had been through all sorts of exploitation in the trade and could not imagine a similar future for her daughters. The two daughters and their future forced Lata to think of an alternate life.
Lata always felt that no one is born a sex worker and every woman she had met was a victim of circumstances. In 2002, with support and encouragement from an NGO, Vijay Krida Mandal, Lata became an Outreach Worker, to create awareness on sexual & reproductive health and provide psychological support to female sex workers living with HIV/AIDS. She campaigned vigorously for the use of condoms.
To compensate for the low remuneration, she underwent training in perfume and jewellery making and started her own small enterprise. She set up a Self Help Group (SHG) with other sex workers, encouraging them to quit sex work and choose alternative livelihood opportunities. Through this SHG, Lata procured a cleaning and waste collection contract from the municipal corporation. As part of this contract, Lata and other women go into the neighbourhood, collect waste and sweep the Rohtakwadi area every morning.
She says, “It’s not easy for these women to leave sex work. They will die of starvation and will be forced to go back, unless they have options to make a living doing something better. Women started coming out of sex work to join the cleaning and garbage collection project. More will come out when they see that they too can do something respectable to feed their children.”
Her dedication towards improving the conditions of the sex workers in the area earned her the title of “Ma” by the people in Rohtakwadi area. Interestingly, many people in the area did not know her by her name until she received the CII Foundation Woman Exemplar Award in Health Category in 2014.
Local and national media coverage brought Lata’s struggle and courage into the limelight. She was then approached by the administration and was offered help in expanding her work. The recognition from CII Foundation earned her respect from the local community and government officials. She says, “Some people used to think of me as a prostitute earlier and did not treat me well but now they talk to me with greater respect. The award has encouraged other SHG.”
Being an avid learner, Lata knows five different languages, has learnt to make perfumes and artificial jewellery, has done a short fashion-designing course, and is learning to speak and write English. Today, Lata Mane is a courageous and expressive woman, an ideal and inspiring example to her community.
CII Foundation (CIF) Woman Exemplar Program celebrates the indefatigable spirit of women leaders at the grassroots. The program is intended for last-mile grass-root level under–privileged women, from either rural or urban resource-poor areas, who have excelled as social change leaders in specific chosen fields. Since its inception in 2005, the program recognizes and felicitates the courage, conviction and compassion of exemplary women change makers who have overcome grave personal challenges to create transformative work impacting communities and providing new paradigms for social development. These extraordinary women are ‘nation-builders’ in every way, driving progress and change in the fields of education, health and livelihoods.
Each year, 3 social transformers join the league of CII Foundation Women Exemplars who have transcended innumerable challenges and become true exemplars. Selected by an eminent panel from Industry and social sector, the awardees are shortlisted by an external due-diligence partner, from hundreds of nominations received from various NGOs across the country.
The program further empowers the exemplars through capacity building and mentoring to help them scale their initiatives. The Foundation is creating a network of grassroots women change makers, who are harbingers of positive change of their communities.