Fighting for the Rights of Sex Workers

It is believed to be the oldest profession in the world - and yet it is not formally classified as 'work'. The women - and men - involved in sex work are ostracized, misunderstood, even pitied. While the society at large still refers to them as prostitutes and labels them as immoral people, the reality is that they are continually abused and exploited - not only by their 'clients' but also the police, who are meant to protect them.

Sex workers usually find themselves at the center of moral and ethical debate. Often they have been tricked into the profession and are unable to opt out of it because of the stigma they face or the poor livelihood alternatives they have. There is also the widely-held belief that some women and girls choose to work as 'call girls' or 'escorts' because it is lucrative. But, clearly, there is little personal choice when it comes to trafficked women and children.

As Manohar Elavarthi, a Bangalore-based human rights activist who has been working for the rights and entitlements of traditionally excluded people like sexual and religious minorities, sex workers and dalits (untouchables), once asked in reference to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA), "Is there a kind of trafficking that is moral?" What clearly emerges is that irrespective of whether coercion is a factor or not, it is important to decriminalize sex work.

Amid all the accusations and debates, some questions emerge. How does a sex worker perceive herself? Does she want to be seen as a victim? What about her rights and entitlements?

Meher (name changed), a Karnataka-based sex worker, faces the stigma and shame that comes with her line of work, every day of her life. She shares, "Apart from the police, the lumpen elements, owners of houses, brothels and lodges, agents (unpopularly termed as pimps), government officials, neighbors and even strangers draw conclusions about our work. No one respects us. The system denies us basic entitlements such as ration cards, voter identification, admission into higher educational institutions, and so on."

One of the reasons why some sex workers, like Meher, are more open about their profession and life than others is the fact that they are part of an organized trade union, collective or network. In Karnataka, for instance, there is the Karnataka Sex Workers Union (KSWU), considered to be one of the first trade unions of sex workers in India. Affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), the KSWU - which was initiated in 2006, has a membership of around 1,400 full-time, part-time and seasonal sex workers from five districts - Bangalore, Ramanagara, Chikballapur, Gadag and Hubli-Dharwad. While most KSWU members are women - Meher is one of them - it also includes men and transgenders.

Meher talks about the odds they face. Clearly what upsets them the most is the discrimination meted out to their children. "Our children face discrimination in schools, colleges and hostels - and that is the worst part. Actually, we are often compelled to raise our kids away from where we live in order to ensure their personal safety and provide them with a stable future. All this happens because society does not accept sex work and even criminalizes various aspects of it under the ITPA," says Meher.

Sex workers operate from different locations - brothels, lodges, their own homes or even 'dhabas' or highway eateries. They are vulnerable to threats and incarceration precisely because their work is not recognized as labor under the existing laws.

For now, the KSWU and other organizations working to secure the rights of sex workers - part of the National Network of Sex Workers and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) - have succeeded in stalling the government's plans to amend the ITPA to penalize clients of sex workers. The union has also been advocating for the educational, social, cultural and economic rights and entitlements of their members. All this can help them in obtaining legal assistance when the need arises.

Another group striving for the rights and dignity of sex workers across Karnataka is the Sahabhagini network, which comprises various organizations and collectives of sex workers at the grassroots, in addition to NGOs. The network is focused on talking to sex workers, brothel owners and other stakeholders about HIV transmission and the need for them to employ adequate safeguards while at work, including avoiding unprotected sex.

This has not been an easy task. Sex workers still largely find it tough to coax their clients to wear condoms - in fact, it can also lead to a loss of income for those who insist on using protection. Those from the community who function as peer educators for HIV prevention and treatment face the risk of harassment at the hands of brothel owners and other sex workers.

Nirmala (name changed), 36, was a sex worker for 12 years before she decided to become an activist. Educated up to Class X, she was married at 14 and had two children in quick succession. Life was tough and her husband used to cheat on her. She got legally separated from him when she was only 17. Poorly educated, she had no real job opportunities. She was living with her mother when she became a sex worker and got attached to a brothel where she was paid much less than the older women.

Realizing that she was being deprived of her fair earnings, Nirmala and a few other sex workers struck out on their own. Today, she works with a community-based organization called Ondugudu Mahila Sangha, which is a part of the Sahabhagini network. Started in 2006, it has 1,300 current and erstwhile sex workers who counsel their peers.

"We are able to reach out to sex workers as we have been in the profession ourselves and are aware of its challenges and ground realities. We manage crisis situations and request the police, auto drivers and others to recognize sex workers as citizens," she says.

Nirmala's primary responsibilities include getting HIV-positive members of the community to take their medication regularly and undergo periodic health checks. She also urges the women to save money. Of course, travelling to the anti-retro viral (ART) therapy centre could involve losses in earnings and expenditure on travel, but she encourages them to continue with the treatment. Fortunately, the government is trying to minimize the income loss by making the required medication available at more outlets or opening clinics at places close to where sex workers live and work.

What is inspiring about the sex workers-turned-activists associated with the KSWU and the Sahabhagini network is that they have no inhibitions about talking about their lives, either with their families or anyone else. Geetha, the late president of the KSWU - she passed away in April 2012 - was one of the first few persons to come out in the open about her HIV positive status. The cheerful 35-year-old, who was a role model to many, had escaped from a fairly abusive married life after having endured it for over 10 years. During that period, she had given birth to two boys but lost contact with them after she left her marital home.

Nirmala has been more fortunate than Geetha. She says, "My parents and siblings are aware that I used to do sex work. They encourage me to do outreach programs. My children are happy that I am able to be of assistance to some of the most ostracized persons in our society."

It is people like her who can inspire hope and faith among sex workers.