Working and living on the edge

| Updated on January 24, 2018

Getting identity: In 2008, Government and NGOs helped 200 sex workers at Sonagachi, Kolkata, get voter's ID cards and registered them in the voters' list for the first time.



Though sex workers now earn more, they continue to live on society's margins. Bringing them within the tax bracket could liberate the community, writes Pradipti Jayaram

It’s an oppressively hot and humid Saturday night. Outside Chennai’s Mofussil Bus Terminus in Koyambedu, a line of buses obediently makes its way towards the platform. The air smells of fumes and faeces. Inside, scores of people scurry about, dragging their luggage and sleepy children, halting to buy tickets and check departure timings. In the midst of this hustle and bustle, two women in their mid-20s, wait patiently on the sidelines. They have no luggage and are dressed rather garishly for an overnight bus journey.

Annie, the name one of them has given herself for the night, is wearing a pink georgette sari studded with rhinestones over a slinky blouse. A bundle of jasmine flowers is neatly pinned to her braid. Estelle, as the other calls herself, is wearing a pair of fitted boot-cut jeans and a fetching light yellow sleeveless kurti. Her shoulder-length hair is ironed straight.

When asked about their choice of names, Estelle explains: “Christian women are perceived as being modern, alcohol-drinking, adventurous, convent-educated, and hence, more refined and sought after.” Probe them for their real names and all one gets are giggles for an answer.

An hour later, the waiting begins to grate and the two go their separate ways to try their luck. Annie strolls about, stopping to gauge interest in lone, male travellers she comes by. Just then, a man of medium height, wearing an off-white shirt, brown trousers, sports shoes and carrying a duffel bag, comes up to her. He pretends to speak into his cell phone. Annie cracks her knuckles and continues to scan the crowd as she speaks to him without looking at him. Five minutes later both part ways, only to meet at the exit of the bus terminus. “They would have gone to a lodge in Vadapalani, which is a few kilometres away,” Estelle explains.

Unlike Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, the southern metro has no red-light district that houses brothels where sex workers, such as Annie and Estelle, can work.

Estelle waits a bit longer at the bus terminus but she doesn’t seem to be having the same luck as Annie. She hails an auto- rickshaw to go to Aminjikarai, about 5 km away. It’s a neighbourhood that sex workers frequent. Here, Estelle will wait on a deserted curb side for a client or clients who would take her to a lodge or an apartment.

Street-walking sex workers such as Annie and Estelle are in a minority in Chennai where about 70 per cent of the estimated 6,000 female sex workers are ‘home-based’. That is, they tell their families they work in small-scale industries, such as garment stitching or basket weaving, for which they are paid a daily wage. Whenever the client calls, usually around four to six times a month, they meet at his home or at one of the many lodges spread across the city in areas such as Kodambakkam, KK Nagar, T Nagar, Choolaimedu and Porur.

Hobson’s choice

On a good night, Annie and Estelle each earn up to ₹2,000 for a session. This is much higher than the average of ₹55 earned by most blue-collar workers in India, especially women. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon. In an essay, part of the Oxford Companion to Economics in India, economist Vijayendra Rao quotes figures based on studies conducted on Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district. Here, prices of a diverse range of services as far back as in 1993 ranged from ₹15 to ₹600 per sexual act.

The average weekly income of a Sonagachi sex worker in 1993 was ₹984 with an estimated hourly wage rate of ₹8.20. This, he says, was approximately double the hourly wage rate women earned in other work in urban India. Owing to this, a few women like Annie and Estelle are drawn by the sex trade's lucrative ness and enter it voluntarily, despite the stigma attached to it.

Reeta (name changed) is a home-based sex worker in Chennai, who works only during the day. She is the primary bread-winner for her family of four and earns ₹10,000-₹20,000 a month.

“My husband is unemployed and an alcoholic. I moved here when I was 15 or 16, after escaping from a household where I used to work and was sexually harassed. Today, I have an 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. Neither my parents nor in-laws are alive, and we have no extended family or support,” she says. “Out of a sense of desperation to earn a livelihood, these women think: We are illiterate, unskilled; we can become maids or construction workers and get paid anything between ₹50 and ₹100 per day. Not only is this less than what a man makes, but by extension I would be forced to service (sexually) the boss I’m working for,” explains Monica Biradavolu, CEO of Qualanalytics and a Research Scholar at the Washington DC-based American University. She has conducted research in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh on sector-related issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender and stigma.

“Economically, it doesn’t make sense to work (in a house or construction site) and provide sex. Becoming a sex worker, according to them, is considered a better alternative,” adds Biradavolu. “Having said that, it’s important to add that these women do struggle, it’s not like they are minting money,” she says.

But most women, unlike Annie and Estelle, enter the profession involuntarily.

Several reasons such as poverty, domestic violence, abandonment and trafficking force them into it. They are usually contracted to work in a brothel under the ownership of a madam or broker, similar to bonded labour.

Then and now

Reeta is the youngest participant at a gathering of sex workers in a three-storeyed house in Anna Nagar, in central Chennai. This is the office of the city-based Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), an NGO that works with sex workers. Also present are four other women – K Kalaivani, B Baby, Amudha (name changed) and Lalitha – who are retired sex workers. While Kalaivani and Amudha are middle-aged, Lalitha and Baby are sexagenarians. They are members of the Indira Female Peer Educators Collective (IFPEC), a community-based organisation started in 2003 under the aegis of ICWO and works for the betterment of sex workers.

Unlike Reeta, their entry into the profession wasn’t voluntary. While the families of Kalaivani, Baby and Lalitha know that they were once sex workers, Amudha and Reeta have kept it a secret. Their families only know of the two’s work with the Collective.

“A lot has changed between the time we practised and now,” says Baby. “Pimps and older prostitutes, who used to mentor us, used to take a share of our money but nowadays one doesn’t need to rely on them to get customers, everyone has a cell phone,” she adds as the others burst into peals of laughter and nod in agreement.

“Customers can directly get in touch with them now; it has become so much easier. One can earn more money today, than before, sometimes ₹7,000 for one session,” says Lalitha. Prices vary based on age, complexion and physique. “During our time, we made just ₹5 or ₹10 sometimes,” squeals a visibly shocked Baby. Kalaivani chimes in, saying, “In the olden days, men were scared about getting involved with sex workers. In Chennai, there are so many more customers nowadays. Previously, it was just people who came travelling, for pilgrimages or for business to the city.” Demand has also increased, adds Baby. “Today, everyone from a sewage worker to a manager in a large IT firm is a customer,” says Reeta.

But why didn’t they become a maid or a tailor, which is less risky and socially acceptable? “Even as a maid, it’s not like the male of the house doesn’t make eyes at you. Everybody wants sex. There is no job a poor woman can do where it’s not expected of her to provide sex as well. This way, we at least earn more,” explain Amudha and Kalaivani.

Apart from earning more than their predecessors, sex workers today, according to Kalaivani, are more aware about their rights and the laws pertaining to them. “In our time, the police used to constantly harass us,” says Amudha. “I’ve even been to prison,” adds Lalitha. “But we still have several issues, especially with law enforcement agencies,” says Reeta. While the economic condition of sex workers may have improved over the years, the circumstances haven’t.

Ambiguity in the law

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA) lays down the legal framework for sex work in India. The Act prohibits brothel keeping, living off the earnings of a sex worker, procuring, carrying on prostitution in public places and soliciting. But the law does not forbid sex work per se.

In other words, while Annie, Estelle and Reeta are safe legally, those working out of brothels in areas such as Kamathipura are on the wrong side of the law. Still, the Act has been disproportionately applied against sex workers, with over 60 per cent cases registered against sex workers for soliciting, says the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW).

“The entry of men and transgender persons into the profession has made the situation even more complex, of which the law in India has taken limited cognisance,” says Supreme Court advocate Rakesh Shukla.

The present implementation of the law, which is replete with ambiguity, criminalises everything around sex. It’s really impossible to be a legal sex worker, even if the law deems it so, says Qualanalytics’ Biradavolu. They are never charged on grounds of sex work because it’s not illegal. But they are charged on other grounds such as obscenity, for which the laws are very lax: it’s a Catch-22 situation, she explains.

While the law is often defended as being necessary to prevent trafficking and child prostitution, it is widely misused to harass adult women who pursue this profession, believes IFPEC’s Kalaivani. “According to the letter of the law, a sex worker can’t provide for her dependants, but most of these women have children and partners and get into the trade to provide for them. So the law is disconnected from reality,” adds Biradavolu.

There is a discrepancy between the way the law ought to be implemented and the way it is. “The women compare themselves to a rickshaw-wallah, or a carpenter who will never be hauled into prison. With women, once the police know they are a sex worker, the women are imprisoned. Even if they are buying something from a kirana shop, the police are always up to harassing them,” says Biradavolu.

Moral repugnance

Members of the law enforcing agency disagree. Police officers seldom arrest women involved in sex work, they are always treated as the victim, the target is the broker or the brothel owner, argues a senior police officer from Haryana. The officer does not want to disclose his identity as he is not authorised to speak with the media.

However, at times when neighbours complain on grounds of nuisance or immorality, the officer has no choice but to yield to public pressure, he adds. Here, lack of social acceptance and moral repugnance associated with the trade pose an issue.

“The impact of morality on law and criminal jurisprudence is reflected in the practice of sending “decoy” customers for two categories of offences – those related to sex work and to narcotics/psychotropic drugs. The courts would in a jiffy throw out a case where the police offer money to an individual to burgle a house and then charge that person with theft as it is impermissible and qualify it as ‘entrapment’,” explains advocate Shukla.

This informal and unorganised economy is a web. It’s all related to the sex trade. It needs to be seen in totality, along with the ancillary economies related to it.

For instance, a rickshaw-wallah, or for that matter a lodge owner and his employees could be brokers. They are all implicated since they participate in this economy but without any blowback, says Biradalovu.

Taxed and decriminalised

Earnings from sex work in India are pegged at $8.4 billion a year, says economist Manisha Shah, an Associate Professor at Luskin School of Public Affairs in University of California, Los Angeles. She is quoting statistics from Havocscope, a database of information related to the black market. For an industry as large as $8.4 billion, Shah agrees that there is a case for a renewed debate on giving prostitution industry status.

While experts like Biradalovu warn that legalising the trade through issue of licences might back sex workers against the insurmountable wall of red tapism, the moot point remains of a sex worker's economic and social independence. She instead proposes decriminsalisation of the trade. “We should be treated just like anyone else earning a livelihood,” says a representative of the IFPEC.

The AINSW, which represents sex workers, agrees. “If sex work were to be legalised, sex workers can pay tax and work with dignity. They can come forward and merge with mainstream society,” a representative from AINSW adds. For instance, after the Prostitution Act in Germany in 2002 made the voluntary sale of sex legal, sex workers today pay taxes.

Industry status will help in the social inclusion of these workers. In a move that pushed for inlcusion, the Supreme Court in 2011 asked the Centre and States to consider the idea of providing ration cards and voter identity cards to sex workers, and improve ease of access while opening bank accounts, by reducing the insistence on strict verification, such as seeking their professional status.

“While some sex workers have identity cards, others face a problem while getting them because address proof, apart from their professional status, is an issue,” explains AJ Hariharan of ICWO.

“While there is something to be said about being able to earn a living and providing for your family and the feeling of empowerment that perhaps comes from it, the stigma will continue to exist. Sex workers aren't completely liberated in that sense,” adds Biradavolu.

So will K Kalaivani, B Baby, Amudha, Reeta and Lalitha ever let their children become sex workers? “No, never,” pat comes the reply.

Published on July 06, 2015

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