"Morality is primarily for people who belong to the middle class or can afford it. If a woman or her children are going to starve on a regular basis, or have to struggle to obtain the basic needs such as housing, healthcare, education or clothes, she cannot afford to think of her public image. Taking up jobs in cooking, cleaning, vending, construction work or others that constitute part-time daily wage labour, without any security or additional benefits, may not fetch money sufficient to support a family of two adults and two children. That is why some of the women who are barely literate and do not possess any vocational skill, take up sex work on a continuous or occasional basis and I can empathize with them."
These are the words of Manjula Shetty, an elderly lady and an active volunteer at a non-profit organisation that runs day care centres for women working in the unorganised sector in Bangalore. While the reasons she cites behind women taking up sex work do hold true in a number of cases, not many people including women would adopt a pragmatic point of view regarding sex work and the socio-economic realities of those who are pushed into it. That is why the taboos regarding sex work are still widely in place, in spite of it being regarded as one of the oldest occupations that humans have known.
Opinions and perceptions regarding sex work vary. Even apparently progressive people consider it a form of sexual slavery while there are people who believe that legalisation of the profession could reduce incidents of rape. Many refer to it as prostitution – a derogatory term to the ears of sex workers and their allies.
Some are of the opinion that sex workers could contribute to the breakdown of stable families and marriages. Objections are raised to their presence and visibility in public spaces or in residential neighbourhoods, given the disrepute and stigma associated with them.
Popular media, too, usually features a skewed portrayal of sex workers. Some of it shows them as avoidable persons who must not be shown any respect and a blot on society, while others tend to highlight that they are people who deserve sympathy for their ‘cursed’ existence.
There are people who believe that it is necessary to ‘rescue’ even adult sex workers and try to convince them to opt out of the profession. But it is sad that even those who believe that adult sex workers should be counselled and guided towards a different path most often do not have a feasible alternative to offer.
This is one of the primary reasons that many attempts to save sex workers not only fail but also create other challenges for them, including shortage of money, lack of accommodation, inability to connect with family and friends. As a consequence, sex workers tend to remain in or return to their professions, as in the case of people like Mary and Ramya.
The real stories
Mary is in her thirties and hails from a socio-economically disadvantaged family living on the outskirts of Bangalore. As she was searching for a job a few years ago, an acquaintance referred her to a specific house in the southern part of the city on the pretext of helping her to find employment. Upon reaching the place, Mary found women wearing trousers and other ‘modern clothes’ lined up. Initially, she was not able to understand the type of work that she was expected to do and tried to leave the place, but reality dawned upon her when she was threatened with dire consequences if she did not have sex with men.
After a few days, she decided to continue the work for the sake for her children whom she had to feed, clothe and educate as her husband was irresponsible and she did not have another job or sufficient vocational skills, nor local contacts that could provide her with necessary support or guidance.
At present, Mary is engaged in the work on a part-time basis, as she has found alternative employment as a peer educator with a non-governmental organization running advocacy campaigns for the restoration of basic rights and dignity of sex workers in Kengeri, a satellite town near Bangalore.
Then there is Ramya hailing from a village in Mandya district, aged around 43 years, who was married off at a young age. She remembers, “My husband turned out to be an alcoholic and beat me regularly. After a few years, when we had a child, he brought another woman home as he felt I was not pleasant enough to look at. I was willing to adjust with the other lady but I was pushed out with no job, home or money or the backing of my marital or maternal family.”
Ramya goes on to share how she was compelled to look for work in the unorganised sector in urban centres, as she did not possess any academic qualification or professional skills. Options for domestic, construction or agricultural work were very few, fetched much less income and needed her to live in and be part of a social network that would introduce her to a prospective employer, something that she did not have.
Moreover, these jobs usually required one to bring a reference from former employers, a residential address and other accepted social affiliations. “Hence, when a friend suggested that she would introduce me to sex work, I decided to listen to her,” recalls Ramya.
She was thus able to provide for herself and her child who has now started working in a private firm, while she herself is a volunteer with a collective of sex workers in Bangalore, working to spread awareness of the need for safe sexual practices, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and fundamental rights and social entitlements.
While it is true that some sex workers are lured into the trade without their knowledge when they are young, there are many – especially gender minorities or high-end “call girls” or “escort service providers”– who enter the profession on full or part-time basis out of choice or due to the absence of other livelihood options.
Then there are traditions such as the Devadasi system in which young girls are dedicated to the goddess Yellamma for the benefit of the family, and exploited by wealthy men for sexual gratification. This is still practised in parts of northern Karnataka such as Koppal, Kurnool district in western Andhra Pradesh and in Madhya Pradesh, as depicted in the moving documentary film, The Holy Wives as well as the accounts of some women, girls and social workers from these places. News reports suggest that Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu too have a few Devadasis still.
Although it is banned by the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1982, the Andhra Pradesh (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1989, and the Goa Children’s Act 2003, poor, pre-pubescent girls, women and specifically those who belong to the socio-economically disadvantaged Dalit community continue to be sexually exploited in the name of God and religion. In fact, as per the abhorrent practice, the highest bidder is allowed to have sex with a virgin for the first time.
While sex work is frowned upon and its practitioners maligned, people from all segments of society – from police personnel to anti-social elements – frequent their haunts to satisfy their sexual needs. However, the same people have no qualms in hitting or abusing sex workers orally and physically, arresting them under flimsy grounds or extorting money from them. There are also instances when they are compensated insufficiently or not paid at all for their services.
“People do not find us worthy of being treated with dignity. Even those who make use of our trade harass and abuse us physically and orally. This is typical of male ruffians, police personnel and others who are in positions of power,” reveals Fatima, aged 28, who has been engaged in sex work for almost a decade in urban Tamil Nadu.
Fatima and other sex workers often survive on the streets, especially during the day, as they do not have a house to live in. But with social taboos attached to their profession, they are compelled to move from one place to the other.
Most sex workers in Bangalore are accustomed to being near the central hub of the city with their clients. But life is becoming more difficult as they are chased out of public spaces such as parks, bus stations and market squares where they were allowed to sit earlier. As a result, some of them are now visiting other towns and cities with their clients, or they are visiting these towns and cities to provide sexual services to customers there.
By the time they are around 40, most sex workers tend to have very few or no clients and find themselves mired in poverty and ill health. This is when they need a sensitive support system and social entitlements, so that they and their dependents can survive. The meagre pension offered to former Devadasis is insufficient and insulting.
Awaiting a new era
Women in sex work are now taking great risks to advise their peers about safe practices such as the use of condoms, or HIV prevention and treatment. They are also championing anti-trafficking campaigns and initiatives and the call for decriminalisation of sex work. Countries such as Sweden have apparently been able to enhance the lives of sex workers by criminalising the ‘buying’ of sex and decriminalising its sale.
Most sex workers and their allies in India, however, are averse to legalisation as it can lead to regulation.
“The government proposes to control our lives and means of earning a living by introducing regressive laws and policies. That will not merely restrict our work but become a threat to our existence which is already tenuous. We want acceptance as human beings worthy of respect, the recognition of our profession as a legitimate one, civil liberties and social entitlements like everyone else, all of which we lack currently.” observes Geeta, an active voice in Swati Mahila Sangha, a collective of sex workers in Bangalore that has been advocating for their fundamental rights and benefits.
Members of sex workers’ unions and federations from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka who are part of the National Network of Sex Workers also have views similar to those of Geeta.
Certain activists who campaign for the rights of sex workers hold that trafficking and pimping of thousands of children and adults within and from outside India for sex must be penalised while sex workers and their clients must not be punished. In this context, it is vital to remember that the Constitution of India, legislations such as the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act 1986 and international conventions and protocols to which India is a signatory, prevent the trafficking of human beings (whether they are adults or not) for labour. These laws also mandate safe and dignified working conditions for all, irrespective of the kind of trade.
Nalini Jameela, a sex worker from Kerala who penned her stirring first book, Autobiography of a Sex Worker in 2005 (that has since been translated into various languages) said during an informal chat in Bangalore in 2010, “My children and grandchildren are aware of my past and are comfortable with it. I do not find a reason to be ashamed of my work or fear anyone else.”
This, ideally, should be the attitude to adopt within the community, but remains a far cry for its members who are sadly rendered a minority by society and the state that uses, abuses and refuses them at will.
Note: Some names and personal details in the story have been changed to protect identity.