Earlier this week, The Supreme Court (SC), ordered the government to identify commercial sex workers who wanted to give up the trade. JusticesMarkandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra set up a panel headed by senior advocate Pradeep Ghosh and asked the Centre and the state governments to conduct a survey across Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai, and submit recommendations as to plausible rehabilitation measures.
Before this matter is heard again on the August 2, advocate Pradeep Ghosh says that this time the court is viewing commercial sex workers (CSW) as victims of their circumstances instead of criminals. “We want the rehabilitation to be voluntary. Those who want to continue with the profession should be able to do so with dignity,” Ghosh told TEHELKA. He believes that the sex workers’ skepticism towards the government is justified since many rehabilitation schemes have failed in the past. “We have an affidavit with us which says that the condition of the rescue homes for sex workers, are worse that prisons,” he said.
This SC order has once again brought to the fore the differences of opinion, when it comes to tackling prostitution. Should commercial sex workers be rehabilitated and taught vocational skills for alternate means of livelihood, or should prostitution be legalised giving the CSWs access to a worker’s rights. Few seem to want to listen to the sex workers themselves.
In the National Capital Delhi, just a few kilometers from the New Delhi Railway Station, lies one of the biggest red light districts in India. On Garstin Bastion Road, more famously known as GB road, thousands of commercial sex workers lead a life of anonymity while society discusses their fate. Above a wholesale hardware market are the congested cramped apartments called Kothas. Look up from the road and you’ll see a group of women stare out like caged birds. They squeeze their hands through the narrow grills and solicit potential customers. Pimps are more direct, they come and grab you by the arm to offer “fresh items”.
One such “item” is 40-year-old Shweta, who hails from Rengunta village in Andhra Pradesh. She has lived here for the past 20 years. “I’m not going to stitch clothes or make baskets for a living. I can’t support a family doing that,” she said, “I never wanted to sell my body for money, but now over the years I now see it as just work,” she explained.
My story is not unique; every woman who is here has a traumatic story of her own,” said Shweta, who was disowned by her family for eloping when she was 15 years old. The couple had three daughters and because of that Shweta was physically abused by her husband, who eventually left her. “I tried to end my life a few times, but I realised that I had to live for my kids… It was the worst time of my life; It was difficult to live and even more difficult to die,” she recalled.
While working in the fields in her village a morning a man, from the neighboring village, approached her. “He told me that he was going to Delhi and will take me with him and find me work in a hospital which would pay me Rs 4,500,” recalled Shweta who soon found herself at a kotha at GB Road. She was sold to a brothel for Rs 40,000. Shweta would remain ‘bonded’ to the brothel keeper for seven years. “I spent the first six months crying, even in front of the customers. Once the client would leave the nayika (brothel keeper) would thrash me,” recounted Shweta in a room the size of a broom cupboard, with the paint peeling from the walls and just a tiny, grilled window to look out from.
It has been 13 years since she been “free”. “Now, I am not forced to see 10-15 clients. I’m free to do as I please,” said Shweta, who now sends half of her Rs 5000 month earning to pay for children’s education and upkeep in Andhra Pradesh. “One of my girls is in college, and the other two are in school. I want to insure that they have a god life, and so I have to make enough money.”
According to Khairati Lal Bhola, president Bharatiya Pattita Uddhar Sabha, who has been working in the area for the past 45 years legalisation is the only solution. Bhola believes that to stop the exploitation of sex workers, “We have to amend the laws and leglise prostitution. That is the only way we can address problems like trafficking and pimping.”
“We shouldn’t view them as criminals but instead afford them human rights,” he added. Jagdeep Singh Rawat, project manager of Shakti Vahini, a NGO working in the area added, “It is important to first improve the conditions in which they work.”
Over the years Shweta has seen a few things change. Awareness of sexually transmitted diseases and the need for contraception is something that has become prevalent. “Customers would sometimes try to pay me an extra Rs 20 to have unprotected sex. I now throw the money back at them. I tell them that I don’t AIDS.” She, however, remains skeptical about rehabilitation. Though Shweta wants a better life, she isn’t convinced how the government plans to give that. “In 2001 some of my friends here were taken by an NGO, saying that they will be taught how to earn money in other ways. They were then sent to Tihar Jail, and taught how to stitch and weave.” They were set free after a few years and started working here again; a few went back to the village. “I don’t want t be thrown into jail,” said Shweta. “What else will I do? I can’t go home, “I can’t tell my kids what I do for a living. I have to make money for my family, and this is the only business I know.” She just wants to be given a scrap of dignity.
Vishwajoy Mukherjee is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
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