The Red Light Despatch: A Publication By And For India’s Sex Workers

Can the subaltern speak? They can and they did

If there’s one thing that has dominated conversations in 2018, it’s the topic of ‘fake news’. A term popularised by US President Donald Trump, it has found mass appeal – it appears that if there’s one thing that brings the left and right together, it’s their mutual hatred of journalists. Of course, while it is unfair to club every media person like that (there are thousands who brave death every day to bring us stories), it is also true that the fourth estate has become heavily contaminated.


However, this article is not about the power dynamics behind Fox News and The New York Times but about journalism that seeks to give a voice to a marginalised community without actually doing so. This is where the Red Light Despatch comes in.

While armchair journalists debate on the terrible conditions faced by sex workers and filmmakers and authors glamourise their lives, this publication run by a grassroots organisation called Apne Aap actually allowed the women to share their fears and tribulations.

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A report in Al Jazeera states that during a newspaper reading session conducted by Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, she was informed by Fatima Khatoon (who was then living in the red light area of Forbesganj in Bihar) that the mainstream newspapers didn’t really include them. The stories that claimed to give them a voice, only managed to produce a copy that resembled the original superficially.


The Red Light Despatch changed that – sex workers wrote and read stories about their lives and there was a certain community feeling that was created. Now, a woman working in Delhi’s Dharampura could read about another in Kolkata’s Sonagachi.

The eight-page-long monthly contained stories which are written by women in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Delhi and Bihar and these are then edited by Gupta and her editorial team. The paper was registered in June 2009 and distributed physically in multiple red-light districts and NGOs and also mailed to a list of people.

A report in the Indian Express states that the articles are written in three languages – Hindi, Urdu and Bengali – and translated in Hindi and English. Gupta told the paper that she refrains from editing too much lest she spoil the flavour of the writing. “Red Light Despatch is not a top-down approach to reporting on prostitution where women are portrayed as cardboard creatures. This humanises them. This is to end the voyeurism. These are women who can feel the pain, suffer repeated body invasion, and are there because of the absence of choice,” she further told Al Jazeera.

On the Apne Aap website, the last issue happens to be from November 2017. Click here to read. In the Al Jazeera report, Gupta had cited a lack of funds as being the reason why the newspaper stopped growing beyond a point. MW has reached out to the organisation for comment and the piece will be updated accordingly.

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