Empowerment can come in different ways. Would many of us ever think that sex workers who are among the most exploited can emerge as winners in a battle that is always tilted against them? 

As we have seen and known, sex workers are among the most discriminated and exploited communities. Stories of frequent harassment by the police who often force them to offer free sex are common. With empathic help coming their way both from social activists and the government, sex workers and transgenders in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh and the city of Bengaluru are now demonstrating how they can fight injustice and exploitation using the legal knowledge they have accumulated.

A significant number of them are now are using legal services to protect themselves and secure their rights and see light at the end of a dark tunnel. The paralegal volunteers and are going from door-to-door sensitizing sex workers about their rights and even helping them file cases. This is a part of numerous projects run by Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) to facilitate social inclusion of sex workers across programmes and schemes.

Govt. officials brief sex workers on various beneficial programmes, Anantapur. Pic: Ramesh Menon

Stepping into a new role

When Venkatamma, a mother of three, was forced to move in with a local leader in Bengaluru, she gave in due to the sheer fear of poverty and the burden of looking after her little ones. He refused to pay for their needs. One night in a fit of anger, after he came to know that she had catered to the sexual needs of another man who paid her for it, he violently attacked her, severely injuring her.

As she lay bleeding at home, other sex workers in the area along with social activists rushed her to the Victoria Hospital. But she died before reaching the hospital. Doctors there found that her private parts had been severely damaged and there were deep bruises. The sex workers who saw her die in their arms decided to take the matter to its logical conclusion by filing a police complaint and then ensuring that justice was done.

The man was finally sentenced for life on the charge of murder. This would have been unimaginable had these sex workers not known what their rights were and the laws that would nail the murderer. Renuka Pattar, who works with the Shakthi AIDS Tadegattuva Mahila Sangh, a community-based organization in Karnataka, says, “Women constantly need help from the police and the legal community to fight the incessant violence they face.”

But it is not that easy as the police often see sex workers as offenders and social outcastes and not as victims of a system that has not been able to give them alternative forms of livelihood and pull them out of poverty.

Mangladevi, a paralegal volunteer in Bengaluru, says: “When we went to train the police force in sensitization towards sex workers, we found that they all blamed us, as they felt that we had got into the profession to make easy money. I told them that I too was from a good family like them, but as I was deserted by my violent husband and had two children to support, I was forced into sex work. I saw how their attitude changed. Some had tears in their eyes. The police are also human.”

Adds Radha, a paralegal volunteer: “The police attitude changed only after sustained advocacy over a period. Once they see our paralegal volunteer identity card, they listen to us. We have got new respect. We are no more cross-questioned.”

One of the places where trafficking is rampant is Kadiri as it borders the poverty-stricken districts of Kadappa, Chittoor and Anantapur, from where women are sent to Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai. Among these, Anantapur is also one of the four districts in the Rayalaseema region that has seen frequent famines and is one of the most economically vulnerable areas in the region, which makes it a fertile ground for trafficking of women. Human development and poverty indices put Anantapur as one of the worst in Andhra Pradesh.

Ramadevi, a community coordinator, says: “Many of the women are single and helpless. We have to sensitize the local population into seeing them as humans who are victims of circumstances, so that they do not morally abhor them.”

Points out Akhila Sivadas, executive director, CFAR: “Most of the sex workers have a history of violence, be it at the hands of the police, clients or their husbands. But with legal knowledge at their command, they are able to challenge it.  Community-based organisations are now spearheading the process of helping their peers gets pensions and other government facilities, so that they can improve their quality of life. The challenge is to enable the community of sex workers to get mainstreamed and reduce both risk and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.”

Legal training

Narsamma from Anantapur was a victim of domestic violence. Her first husband deserted her, leaving her with two children. Then, a client of hers professed his love and took her to Bengaluru. She had a son with him. After the child was born, he started demanding money from her to fund his drinking habit. Fed up, she returned to Anantapur.

It was not easy looking after three children, but counseling from the protection officer in the Women and Child Development Department stopped her from committing suicide. Narsamma has now realized the need to be legally literate and is grateful for the legal advice and help she got from her collective of sex workers who function as a community.

Having become a paralegal volunteer, Mangladevi in Bengaluru too feels empowered enough to file a case against her husband who got married to another woman without taking a divorce from her. She has filed for maintenance under the Domestic Violence Act. This is something she would never have had the confidence to do a few years back.

Paralegal volunteers at a meeting. Pic: Ramesh Menon

Many like her have got trained by the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority. They proudly carry identity cards proclaiming them as paralegal volunteers. They mediate in cases of domestic violence or any other matter and try to resolve it as a legal right and entitlement amicably. The men are informed about different laws under which they can be booked. If this does not work, it escalates into a court case.

The District Legal Services Authority then nominates a lawyer who will fight for the victim for free. These measures have decreased violence against the women and other exploitative methods. For as activist lawyer Vrinda Grover points out that there is no monitoring of legal aid services for sex workers. “It should be done to ensure that it works the way it was designed. How many lawyers come well-prepared to defend sex workers in court?” she asks.

Says Sivadas, “Unless a measure of social inclusion comes in, nothing can be done for these communities. So, it is important not to criminalize them and get them into the legal process.”

Satish Agnihotri, a former bureaucrat adds, “Without legal literacy, mobilizations remain incomplete. As stakes increase, both need to be raised a step further. It is imperative to have paralegal training.”

One window, many dreams

Sreenivaslu, assistant project manager of the District Rural Development Agency at Anantapur, told us, “The administration identified ten areas in the district that were poor and, therefore, prone to trafficking. It identified as many as 6,000 women who would be attached to self-help groups that would ensure that they get the benefits of various government schemes, so that they are not coerced or sexually exploited. The administration would get funds out of the National Livelihood Mission which had earmarked a budget of Rs 11.28 crore.” 

To ensure that sex workers and transgenders get the privileges that were their right, the then Anantapur district collector, Lokesh Kumar, decided to set up a Single Window in 2014 that would ensure that all their paperwork would be speedily done so that they could avail of government schemes. Earlier, they would run from pillar-to-post for aid, pay touts and still, often not be able to access services or entitlements. The Single Window also helped them get a voter identity, Aadhar and ration cards, birth certificates and property documents.

For the first time, sex workers also realized that they were eligible for pensions. While district officials specified what documents were needed, community coordinators helped them garner the necessary papers and filled in the application forms. Anantapur had six community-based organizations and has over 9,000 sex workers under their umbrella. To ensure that sex workers got immediate attention of government officials when they apply, they were given a distinctive blue file. Usually, action is taken within two weeks.

The new confidence in the community shows. Khaja Bee from Dharmavaram said that when the Aadhar centre was set up, she did not go there, fearing stigma. But, when social workers set it up to give out these cards, she confidently approached them and even got a card for her mentally challenged daughter.

Earlier, social workers in Anantapur district found it difficult to get their children admitted into hostels run by the Social Welfare Department or even to get scholarships. But as part of their induction into this new awakening, sex workers and transgenders were told that they could take advantage of eight different schemes. Social workers in the community based organisations helped sex workers get income and caste certificates and other documents.

Also, under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, the district increased financial allocation to ensure that children of sex workers benefited and some were also rehabilitated in government-run homes. As many as 600 children who needed foster care were identified.

The women were told that under the Right to Education Act, it was their legal right to get access to education. Sujata, who is being treated for HIV/AIDS, says she got 21 children of sex workers admitted to school as she knows the rights they have to education. “I understand the importance of education as I am illiterate,” she says.

Government officials too were, for the first time, more than ready to help these sex workers. This happened because the district collector had told officials that sex workers must be given priority. The Single Window culture also meant that government officials were now reaching out to sex workers in places convenient for them.

In a rectangular room in Ramnagar, where the sun filters in through large windows, a group of brightly dressed women with orange and white flowers in their hair patiently listens to a group of officers explaining what schemes they were entitled to. It is here that Venkatarathnam, the district program manager for HIV/AIDS tells a group how he is working on a proposal to secure loans for them under the scheduled tribe category, where they would only have to repay ten percent of it if they fall into the category of people with HIV/AIDS. Other officers take notes and promise immediate action.

Periodically, the officers come there to listen to their grievances and work out solutions on the spot. It is an excellent example of local governance at its best.

New horizons

Community-based Organisations (CBOs) representing sex workers, supported by civil society organisations such as CFAR, have been mobilising sex workers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and elsewhere for many years now. They also ensure that children of sex workers do not get pulled into the profession.

Take Sharda (name changed), the daughter of a sex worker. The Single Window run jointly by CBOs and CFAR got her into school and secured a pension for both her mother and grandmother. The principal has kept her family background a secret so that she isn’t discriminated against.

Playtime at a school in Anantapur. Pic: Ramesh Menon

As Sharda shyly sits in her school principal’s room, she softly speaks of how her mother was rescued by the Delhi police from a brothel and sent back to Gandlapenta in Andhra Pradesh. The young girl is happy being in school as it has heralded new dreams for her. “I want to become a teacher one day as I can change the lives of so many,” she says.

Sharda is not the only one. Many children of sex workers are now living in residential schools in Andhra Pradesh thanks to the efforts of social workers. Ratnamma from Chapiri village in Anantapur says that her nine-year-old daughter secured admission in fifth standard. “She will study till the 12th without a problem,” she says with a smile. 

Sujata (name changed), whose mother is a devadasi, was under family pressure to get married. She refused to do so after social workers persuaded her to continue studying. She is now in the 12th standard. The Single Window process helped her mother get her an annual scholarship of Rs. 2,500 and hostel accommodation for her to continue studying. “I am grateful that I now have a future,” she says. Many of us take our lives for granted. Sujata does not.

Another such child is Ishwaraiyya from Anantapur whose mother, a sex worker, was murdered by his father, who then fled. The Single Window team ensured that he got admission in a free government school with a hostel. Today, Ishwaraiyya says he has put the past behind him and wants to make his grandmother proud.

Sunita Kumari, principal of KGB Vidyalaya, Gandlapenta, where over 200 girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are given free education, says, “Normally parents insist on their daughters marrying before they turn 18. But we do not have a single instance of any of our girls being forced to do so. This is because we counsel the parents regularly on the advantages of education and the career opportunities it throws up for their children.”

Poor performers in school are singled out for special attention from the teachers. In the last two years, all students appearing for the board exam have passed. Community workers constantly look for students who could be potential dropouts or get into crime.

Geetha, who works as an activist in Bengaluru with the Vijaya Mahila Sangha, says of this overall initiative, “We learnt how to access social development schemes and HIV prevention methods and realized that even marginalized women have rights. This has happened as sensitive government officials encouraged us with the Single Window system, listened to our grievances and ensured we got various benefits. We do not have to knock on government doors anymore as they come to us. The district legal services authority deputed lawyers to help us procure certificates when our husbands deserted us or died.”

Asha Ramesh, a gender activist in Bengaluru, said the single window system and the legal training imparted to them has “amplified the voices of sex workers on issues and given them access to government benefits they never knew about.”
But then, it took the effort of many to see this empowerment.  All eyes are on Anantapur now, as it has held up a model that can easily be replicated all over the country.

The challenge now is to ensure that such replication does indeed take effect in other parts of the country, where marginalized sections of society continue to bear the brunt of violence and injustice. The only way out is to ensure that paralegal training is made an integral part of the system so that vast populations are able to stand up against and avoid exploitation.