The difficult choices for India’s sex workers

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Recently, India’s Supreme Court set up a panel to investigate ways to prevent human trafficking, as well as the rehabilitation of sex workers into other vocations.  In addition, Justice Markandey Katju said that sex workers had a right to live with dignity if they chose to stay in their profession. Despite India’s socially conservative culture, sex workers can be found everywhere in India – from the largest metropolist to the humblist truck stoy.  The Ministry of Women and Child Development admits that there are an estimated 3 million commercial sex workers in India.  NGO’s put that number much higher – at around 20 million, and claim that more than 35% of them entered the trade before they were 18.  But can the Supreme Court panel do anything concrete to help those most in need of it?

Amrita Nandy for The Women’s Feature Service has this report

NGO’s say that sex workers repeatedly and desperately request the chance to get out of the business and earn their livelihoods in different ways.  But finding work for often unskilled or illiterate people that pays as well as sex work is no easy matter.

‘Don’t hate this work’
Asked if she would take up the rehabilitation scheme, 31-year-old Sonam says, “Why not? If the new job can give me as much money as this one, I am willing to give this up right away! But I do not hate this work. I could buy a two-room house in Delhi and send my daughter to a private school because of this work. It is not begging… I work hard to earn a living.”

Sonam came to Delhi at 15 and was pushed into sex work. She says that at first she was unhappy and longed to go back home, but life in the brothel became comfortable because her madam treated her like a daughter. “This ‘kotha’ and its people are home and family now,” she says.

In the slums of east Delhi, 54-year-old Payal is a sex worker as well as a female pimp. “This is no age for sex work but do I have an option? I tried stitching and still take on work like this (pointing to a pile of clothes) but I can barely survive with it,” she says.

Payal is positive about the rehabilitation scheme and says she is tired of her dual life, where she has to hide her work from her husband, children, parents, neighbours and even some peers. “They all know I pimp but not that I am a sex worker. Sex work gives a woman better money but takes away her ‘izzat‘ (honour) and family. But I want ‘izzat‘ now. People should know that I am a good person, a loving mother,” she says.

Despite the willingness of most sex workers to take up other professions, the profession remains the most economically attractive option for illiterate women, according to the first pan-India survey of sex workers. Moreover, many sex workers often have two or three jobs simultaneously.  A domestic worker could moonlight as a sex worker, or a woman working on a factory line may, on the side also be offering sexual services to senior colleagues.

Ageing sex workers often find it difficult to live off their dwindling earnings.  Lalli was five when she was brought into Delhi’s red light district. “Before I die, I want to see a different life. So training me in stitching or something is fine but they must give us houses to live in and find us work too. That will be complete rehabilitation,” she says tearfully.

She knows that banning prostitution isn’t a solution, “Sex work can never be abolished. So it is best to allow sex workers who wish to continue carry on, but improve their living conditions.”

29-year-old Fauzia, a home-based sex worker, is cynical of the rehabilitation scheme. She believes it is a step towards abolition. She recounts the story of her friend who was forced into a remand home by authorities.

“I work out of my madam’s house and visit clients at theirs. My monthly earning lets me pay my house rent and educate my son. And I am paying EMIs (Easy Monthly Installments) for a small plot of land I have bought. I am illiterate, how can I find any other job that gives me as much? I plan to continue this work as long as I am young… will think of substitutes when I am older or if my family comes to know and I am forced to quit,” she says.

However, the Supreme Court bench is taking measures not to employ forceful measures towards sex workers. The court order clearly states that sex workers cannot be forced to stay in corrective homes to undergo vocational training under the rehabilitation schemes.

(All names have been changed on request.)

(© Women’s Feature Service)


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