Access to Healthcare
As women, men and transgender people earning our livelihoods through sexwork, STD, HIV/AIDS, and many other global concerns are a daily worry for us. With access to affordable, quality healthcare, our lives would be much easier.
Children of Sex Workers
One of the myths that hold great power over public imagination is that we force our young daughters into sex work! We do not. We sell sexual services so that our daughters (and sons) may be educated, employed and lead their lives free from the exploitation, stigma and abuse that mark our lives. We want our children to live comfortable lives, to live with dignity. Radha’s son is an engineer. Madhu’s daughters are married to government officials, and lead happy lives. There are many more such stories in our lives. We take pride in our children and do our best for them. Don't you? We aim for a better life for our children. Don’t you?
However, there are thousands of child sex workers in India. Most of them are trafficked into the trade.
Criminalisation of sexwork is one of our biggest issues. We’d like to earn a living as honest hard-working citizens, not criminals. So we demand the “decriminalization” of sexwork. We do not want any government body to regulate us. We demand the right to “regulate” ourselves and our work. Train us, give us skills to protect ourselves and other sexworkers, join hands with us to make sexwork safe physically, mentally and socially.
Why decriminalize it?
For many of us, sex work is a means of livelihood and offers us a better deal as compared with being unskilled labour in another exploitative industry. As independent decriminalized sex workers, we could get to keep most of our earnings, could be free to educate our children, could refuse to work, could retire when we want to and live life on our terms. The main problems we face are stigma from society and harassment by law enforcement agencies and anti-social elements alike. While combating the stigma is a long and arduous process, the harassment is clearly due to the illegal nature of the industry. Decriminalising sex work will remove the excuse that law enforcement agencies currently have to arrest us and demand a share of our income. At the same time, if prostitution is decriminalized, anti-social elements would lose a hook they use to trap and harass us.
Why regulate it?
Theoretically, unregulated industries offer no protection or support for workers. In practice, exploitation is common even regulated industries. We appreciate (more than anyone else) why it is essential to have some checks and balances in a highly exploitative industry like sex work. For one, it could ensure that vulnerable people are not trafficked and coerced into the trade. However, practically speaking, any regulation would only leave us open to harassment at the hands of the regulating agencies and other law enforcement agencies.
How about self-regulation?
Self-regulation is a possibility though we are hardly a well-organised group as of now. We could organize ourselves in terms of geographical area and ensure that within our beats, child sex work is prevented. We could also ensure that health and safety measures are in place for all our colleagues. Such measures have worked in several places, including our very own DMSC Sonagchi.
In India, sex work per se (i.e. exchanging sex for money) is legal. As long as it is done privately and voluntarily, a woman can sell sexual services to earn an income. However, soliciting for sex, operating brothels and being an agent for sex workers (pimping) are illegal, i.e. organized sexwork and third-person profiting from sex work are illegal.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1986 or PITA which is supposed to deal with trafficking is the law that is actually used to handle issues related to sex work and sex workers in India. According to this law, sex workers could practice their trade privately, but could not solicit customers in public. A sex worker cannot carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place – with public place defined so broadly that it makes adherence to this law difficult. Sex workers are not protected under labour laws, but they possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire and possess all other rights of other citizens. Recent attempts to amend this legislation to criminalize clients of sexworkers have been opposed by the Health Ministry, sex workers groups and others.
The definitions that PITA uses are:
Sex Workers: A prostitute who seduces or solicits shall be prosecuted. Call girls can not publish phone numbers to the public (imprisonment up to 6 months with fine). Sex worker also punished for prostitution near any public place or notified area. (Imprisonment of up to 3 months with fine)
Public place includes places of public religious worship, educational institutions, hostels, hospitals etc. A “notified area” is a place which is declared to be “prostitution-free” by the state government under the PITA. A brothel is a place which has two or more sex workers
Clients: A client is guilty of consorting with prostitutes and can be charged if he engages in sex acts with a sex worker within 200 yards of a public place or “notified area”. (Imprisonment of up to 3 months) The client may also be punished if the sex worker is below 18 years of age. (From 7 to 10 years of imprisonment, whether with a child or a minor)
Pimps and Babus: Babus or pimps or live-in lovers who live off a prostitute’s earnings are guilty of a crime. Any adult male living with a prostitute is assumed to be guilty unless he can prove otherwise. (Imprisonment of up to 2 years with fine)
Brothel: Landlords and brothel-keepers can be prosecuted, maintaining a brothel is illegal. (From 1 to 3 years imprisonment with fine for first offence). Detaining someone at a brothel for the purpose of sexual exploitation can lead to prosecution. (Imprisonment of more than 7 years)
Procuring and trafficking: A person procures or attempts to procure anybody is liable to be punished. Also a person who moves a person from one place to another, (human trafficking), can be prosecuted similarly. (From 3 to 7 years imprisonment with fine)
Rescued Women: The government is legally obligated to provide rescue and rehabilitation in a “protective home” for any sex worker requesting assistance.
Male sexwork is not recognized by the law in India. In India, consensual male homosexual acts are now legal but male sexwork is all but invisible and not much is currently known about the status of male sex workers. Due to the social stigma attached to homosexuality in India and the lack of legal protection, they tend to face as many risks females. They are often faced with violence from the police, clients, and are often subjected to extortion from the police in order to carry on with their work.
One of our biggest issues is our basic human rights. We are sex workers, but we are also women, people. The police, the media, goondas and the general public all conspire to strip us of our human rights in many situations, for example, in Channapatna in 2007.
We demand a right to work safely. We demand a right to earn an income in a profession of our choice. We demand a right to a life of dignity.
Do not raid us. Do not rescue us. Leave us alone, to work, earn our livelihoods and live with dignity.
This is a huge occupational hazard for us. First, let us talk about children.
(a) Vulnerable children are kidnapped from disaster hit areas by criminals involved in the human trafficking network.
(b) Sometimes, the parents are dead or lost.
(c) Sometimes, their families genuinely believe they are sending their children towards a better future.
(d) Tribals who have little knowledge of the wicked world beyond their forests often send their girls to the city for a better life.
These children are abused by pimps, clients and sometimes, their own families. The girls are forced to service several men each night, for nothing more than food and board. The trafficker pays off the kidnapper, police, goondas, and everyone else. All this money is added to the debt of the trafficked girl. Strange math, this!
Whenever we can, we do rescue these girls. If we hear on the grapevine of someone who is being forced into prostitution, or being trafficked, we do our best to get them out of the situation. If our efforts are unsuccessful, we even call the police for help. We believe that we are best positioned to help trafficked women and girls. With some relevant skills and training, we could get information from the networks, and rescue women and children who have been trafficked.
Sometimes, when we are working, we ourselves are in danger of being trafficked. And several of our Union members have been in such dangerous situations. But we have escaped as soon as possible.
A regular client asked me to bring a friend and go on a trip with him. I agreed. He came with his friend, and we visited many places by car, eventually landing in Bombay. There we found that he had sold us to a brothel. For some days, we fought, we refused to accept clients. We were beaten badly. Eventually, we gave in. We lived in hell for a few days. Our clothes were taken away to ensure we could not run away. We had to wear an underskirt and blouse, without a sari. We begged often, but none of the clients would help us. One day, a trafficked girl lent us her clothes. We stole the key to the gate and made a quick exit. With some help from an auto driver, we managed to catch a train and return home. We only came back because we were older women, we had travelled around a bit, knew several languages, and could find our way around. Can you imagine what a 14-year-old girl in such a position could do?