Published: 22nd October 2018
Dancing her way out of fear: Born in Kolkata's red-light area, Uma Das fought back to become a dance teacher
Uma Das joined Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a charitable trust. Apne Aap was founded by 22 women from Mumbai's red light district, with a vision of a world where no woman could be bought or sold
Born in a red-light area in abject poverty, she was married to an abusive man when she was 16 and fought a four-year battle to get custody of her son.
The odds were stacked impossibly high, but Uma Das fought back and is today a much sought after dance teacher.
Just 25, she also manages a unit to make sanitary napkins in Munshiganj, the red-light area in West Bengal's capital Kolkata.
Walking firmly on the path towards independence and empowerment, Uma Didi, as she is known, is a beacon of hope for other young women in Munshiganj who, like, her, refuse to be sucked into the vortex of flesh trade.
My mother was sold to a brothel. I was born in a red-light area. All my life, I have seen fear in the eyes of young girls. My mother fought tooth and nail to protect me from the flesh trade, Uma said in a telephonic interview from Kolkata.
When she was 19, Uma witnessed a sex worker being burnt alive by a customer over a paltry sum of money and decided she would not allow young lives go up in flames.
The activist saw hope in dance and used it as a potent tool to hit back at patriarchy and poverty.
She joined Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a charitable trust. Apne Aap was founded by 22 women from Mumbai's red light district, with a vision of a world where no woman could be bought or sold.
Undeterred by threats from pimps, brothel owners and others, Uma uses dance therapy to help girls of the red-light area choose a life of dignity.
She teaches Rabindra Sangeet Nritya, a classical based dance form invented and devised by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, to girls in the area.
Uma learnt the dance form at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO which uses Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) as an alternative approach to counselling, psychosocial rehabilitation, self-expression and empowerment.
The unique therapy model is designed to heal and empower individuals from marginalised communities, including survivors of gender-based violence and at-risk children and youth.
"I always wanted to dance. It is my salvation. Today, as a part of Apne Aap, I teach dance to girls in my area. We also run a sanitary pad making unit. Girls are also taught to make jute bags. These girls are often scoffed at for the work they do, but what they need is an avenue to earn their livelihood with dignity, Uma asserted.
Uma is also an international celebrity of sorts.
Held out as an example for others, she has met former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American actor Ashley Judd.
I met Hillary Clinton in 2012 when she visited Kolkata. I tied a band with the line Cool Men Don't Buy Sex' on her wrist. We met Ashley Judd last year when she visited my house as part of an initiative by Apne Aap, she said.
Uma, who helped show many young women the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, has waged a long, often lonely battle against power.
When I started out, I was a nobody. I got threats from pimps, brothel owners and middlemen. I have led many raids in brothels and rescued young girls. Small kids are lured with the promise of chocolates and sweets. They are then sold off. We worked hard to create an effective circle of discreet informers who tip us off about any immoral activity, she said.
She continues to live in Munshiganj and strives to empower the girls of the area.
Discussing personal life, she said her mother has been a pillar of strength for her.
"I survived an abusive marriage. I married a boy from our neighbourhood when I was 16 against my mother's wishes. I want to forget that phase of my life as it was a big mistake. I fought a long custody battle for my eight-year-old son. I have now filed for divorce. My strength in all these phases was my mother. She never lost confidence in me," said Uma.
An Apne Aap worker praised Uma's determination and courage to fight the odds.
Uma today is in charge of Apne Aap's sanitary pad making unit in Munshiganj. She gets a stipend from Apne Aap. Five girls from the red-light area work under her. They make around 250 to 300 sanitary pads daily. The girls are usually paid Re 1 per sanitary pad. The unit was started in 2015. It requires a lot of courage to stand up to power when you are a nobody. Uma strived to change her destiny and today she is a force to reckon with, she said.
Moving away from an unhappy past to a brighter future, Uma dreams big.
I want to raise my son by giving him a good education. I still remember that horrible day when a sex worker was burnt alive, I hope no life goes up in flames. I will continue to protect young girls from the flesh trade, just the way my mother protected me," she concludes.