Sankalp Dikshit

Stayfree and DDB Mudra focus their attention on commercial sex workers

A look at the new social initiative - '#ProjectFreePeriod'.

Certain topics are mostly left outside the purview of mainstream discussions especially due to the stigma associated with them. Commercial sex work is one such topic, at least in India. Countries across the globe have either legalised, criminalised or decriminalised the act depending upon multiple socio-cultural and political variables operating in the respective regions. However, India's case is precarious. Vague and ambiguous laws regarding commercial sex work classify the act as legal, but criminalise any third party involvement in the form of pimping, pandering, brothels and pornography among several others, thereby rendering the industry unregulated and mostly exploitative in nature.

Stayfree and DDB Mudra focus their attention on commercial sex workers

Stayfree has launched a campaign titled, '#ProjectFreePeriod' in partnership with DDB Mudra Group and the NGO, Prerana

Another such topic is that of menstrual health which continues to adopt the 'hush-hush' tone of communication and is safely kept under wraps. Combining the two topics at hand - commercial sex-work and periods - feminine hygiene brand Stayfree has launched a campaign titled, '#ProjectFreePeriod' in partnership with the DDB Mudra Group and the NGO, Prerana. The campaign aims to empower commercial sex-workers by imparting useful skills that can help them opt for a different career choice.

'But what's the connection' One may ask...

Stayfree and DDB Mudra focus their attention on commercial sex workers

World map showing the legal status of commercial sex work by countries
Click on the image to enlarge

This social initiative will be carried out during the period-days wherein women of the sex trade are given a three-day off from work. During this time the brand, along with its partners, have pledged to provide vocational training to these women so that they can move out of the sex industry. Ironically, while several women dread their period-days, commercial sex-workers look forward to them as they provide a welcome break from the lifestyle they are subjected to.

Stayfree and DDB Mudra focus their attention on commercial sex workers

Rahul Mathew

"We felt it was an opportunity for us to help them use their periods to normalize their lives," shares Rahul Mathew, national creative director, DDB Mudra Group.

He adds, "Over the last year, we have been looking for different and differentiated ways to enable this thought in society through both, communication and action. As an agency, we do a lot of work towards digging out new insights and behaviours from different parts of society and then marry them with the intents and ambitions of brands. As we immersed ourselves further into the project, we realized that skill (building) was actually the best way to rescue them from the trade."

An analysis of the sex trade in India reveals that commercial sex-workers are mostly working with pimps at illegal brothels and their freedom of movement or the decision to switch careers is typically not a matter of choice or skill development. Many are victims of sex-trafficking and are forced to keep working in this industry without their consent. How then does this initiative hold ground?

Stayfree and DDB Mudra focus their attention on commercial sex workers

Mugdha Dandekar

Mugdha Dandekar, project manager at Prerana (an NGO focused on rescuing trafficking victims) says, "While there are many reasons how women land up in the sex trade, one of the most compelling reasons for them to stay is because they do not know anything else. Even when they have an option to leave, they don't have any skills that will allow them to honourably re-join society. As a result, even the rescued ones often return. This in turn, also leads to their future generations being unable to break out of the trade."

Mathew adds, "We see ourselves as an initiative that opens a door of hope for these women; they still have to choose to walk through it. But knowing that they now have the means to reintegrate with society, we believe it should give them the courage to do so. One of the women comes from a village with no electricity. She saw candle-making as an opportunity for her to go back to her village and set up her own business. That, for us, is a woman who now has a 'Dream of Progress'."

In January this year, the first edition of #ProjectFreePeriod was launched in the red light district of Mumbai. In the workshops since, over 30 women have been a part of this programme and have been taught skills that range from candle-making, embroidery, henna-art, soft-toy making to a basic beauticians course. As per the official spokesperson, there shall be stalls put up in flea markets and malls to display the products of the commercial sex-workers' newly acquired skills in order to create more awareness and support for this initiative.

Speaking about the curriculum, Mathew says, "The curriculum was the trickiest bit for us to resolve. It needed to include skills that could sustain them in the future, but at the same time could be crunched into modules that could be taught in three days. We also had to be mindful that these skills interested and engaged our women. Each module also needed to allow these women to feel a sense of accomplishment in what they learnt. So, we've crafted them in a way that every module is complete in itself but allows her to further her abilities with every passing month."

Dandekar tells us that the women of the sex trade have welcomed this initiative. "We've even seen women sending their children to the classes so that they at least break out of the generational trap of the trade. While the project is still young and evolving, what's heartening and optimistic is the commitment at both ends - from those conducting it and those participating. We have regulars who are growing both, in skill and confidence and they are in turn becoming poster-women for others. Initially, we had to rely on our connections with some of them (commercial sex-workers), now they, in turn, are helping us recruit more students," states Dandekar.

Corporations are often criticized for engaging in such social initiatives to gain goodwill for the brand and lacking any serious commitment. And so a question comes to mind - what was the need to advertise this campaign (through the press releases, Facebook posts)? One can't help but wonder - wouldn't it add more credibility if this initiative been carried out without the media glare?

Mathew explains, "Project Free Period is the CSR leg of an initiative launched by Stayfree last year called - 'Dreams of Progress'. The brand is committed to the cause but also understands the magnitude of what this project could achieve. Which is why it is not perceived as being the brand's property alone and that they're also looking to collaborate with various other brands and agencies to make it a more sustainable and scalable model. We believe that the more people talk and participate in initiatives like these, the more comfortable society will be about such topics."

Agency credits

Agency: DDB Mudra Group

Creative: Rahul Mathew, Shagun Seda, Kapil Tammal, Sharad Das Gupta, Aashna Gopalkrishnan, Faraaz Ansari, Vinay Singh

Account Management: Aditya Kanthy, Rajiv Sabnis, Kim Das, Nikita Tambay, Vinisha P., Megha Jaiswal, Megha Sharma, Qaid Vora

Account Planning: Toru Jhaveri, Sanchari Chakrabarty, Natasha Bohra, Anushka Gilani

Films: Vishal Sane, Ganesh Pawal, Chandana Bannikoppa, Himmat Singh Shekhawat

Communication: Akanksha Mishra, Darshani Jawale