Last week four short films began screening on VBS.TV under the title  Prostitutes of God

The film-maker Sarah Harris ingratiated herself with VAMP whose members agreed to allow her to film them. What resulted are films that are both insulting to the people who agreed to participate, and misrepresent the culture, religion and context in which the women portrayed do sex work. It must be noted that those portrayed did not sign release forms.


To manipulate people to meet ones own ends is reprehensible. To, in addition disparage a culture and religious beliefs, as Sarah Harris and VBS TV have done, requires either wilful ignorance or a determination to produce work that panders to the worst type of sensation seeking. The end result is a documentary that does not depict reality or raise issues related to sex work in any meaningful manner.

Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (Prostitutes Freedom from Injustice) or "VAMP" was set up in 1996 by SANGRAM, Sangli, Maharashtra. This collective now works with a human rights perspective with more than 5000 women, men and transgender people in sex work. The Collective covers six districts in Western Maharashtra and two in North Karnataka. It has been internationally recognised by groups like Human Rights Watch for its contribution to human rights and for its work in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Instead of depicting this reality of empowered women going about their important work of dealing with violations of human rights, womens rights, right to health and livelihood, Sarah Harris chooses to portray them as pimps or helpless victims. One case in point is that of Belavva. The film maker wrongly states that the "Devadasi" religious ritual demands that poor families traffic their daughters into prostitution (that is dedicate them to the goddess Yellama). She then implies that when Belavva was young her family sent her to work for a landlord who asked her parents to dedicate her - or pimp her out. This is not true, neither in the instance of the individual concerned, nor with respect to the religion as practiced locally. Then, and horrifically, without permission and in violation of all ethics, she adds that Belavva has HIV and is infecting others, presumably on a daily basis. The film maker then states (again without any evidence) that when Belavva dies her 8 year old sister will take her place - presumably because she will be trafficked by her parents or someone else.

Here are some of the statements made by Sarah Harris and published by VBS.
They are not based on fact and/or are calculated to belittle/sensationalise:

- Girls dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma will become sex slaves;
- 3,000 girls are dedicated each year;
- Anita is a brothel owner (she is a sex worker not a brothel owner);
- Religious ritual allows poor families to pimp out their daughters;
- Devadasi ceremony condones child prostitution;
- Families are offered a fee for their daughters;
- Garish Hindu icons; and fat Hindu gods, blue skin and gold bikinis.

Unfortunately, there is more.

In response to this offensive racist film that is premised on baseless allegations, VAMP has produced a 3.5 min clip VAMP responds to betrayal by prostitutes of God Film countering the distorted perspective in the film. The women from Sangli present their incisive views about sex work; religion and faith; livelihoods; issues of consent; ethics and cross-cultural sensitivities while making documentary films.

In the age of the Internet, women in countries far away who used to be the objects of white people's gaze with no right of reply now have access to the representations that are made of them, and the technological means to answer back. A naive westerner may seize the headlines, but there's now scope for there to be a debate and to bring those who in the past would have remained voiceless victims into that debate to represent themselves. It is a great opportunity to put the record straight. (The clip has been produced by Sangli Talkies*), the newly-launched video unit of SANGRAM / VAMP).

While VAMP continues to explore possible legal and other actions to redress the violations detailed above, we ask that you upload the VAMP film in the comments section on your website. This would go some way toward not only allowing voice to the women of Sangli, but also providing much-needed debate on sensitive issues like sex work, livelihoods, choice and religion.

In solidarity,

Shabana Kazi,VAMP and Meena Saraswathi Seshu, SANGRAM