On one side, their complaints seem mundane — kids have to be sent to school, soaring house rent and rising prices for basic necessities. You would think you had dropped into the middle of a conversation between your mother and the neighbour. But on the other side — these people are sex workers, who lead a dual life in every single aspect, right down to having two different numbers for family and work.“That work phone might ring any time. People think we work only at night, but I have customers calling me right from 6-7 am. There’s no fixed time for them to want sex,” says Radha*, a sex worker from Thanjavur who came to Chennai nearly 10 years ago. In her ‘other life’, Radha is a doting mother of three school-going children.
“If I don’t go, they threaten me and say they’ll hand me over to the police, or worse, slit my throat,” she says with a laugh. Isn’t she horrified by the prospect? “That’s a risk we live with. It’s part of what we do. Besides, that’s why we have two phones. Whenever we can’t work, we just switch off or put the ‘work phone’ on silent mode,” she adds.
Sanjida* too has faced similar threats. She speaks of recurring phone calls around midnight from someone claiming to be Inspector of Koyambedu police station’. One day, she shot back, “Inspector? What’s your name? I’m coming to Koyambedu Station tomorrow. Let’s meet there!” The line went dead on the other end and the ‘Ins’ hasn’t called since.
This, the sex workers say, is one of the primary reasons they are campaigning for an area where they can work. “Not a red-light area like Mumbai. Not a place where people live. We just want a place where women can work without such hassles,” says K Kalaivani, a former sex worker, who is now the secretary of Indira Female Peer Educators Collective, a body which works for the well-being of sex workers and their children.
Asked what facilities the area should have, Kalaivani is realistic: “First, let us get a place. The rest can be decided only based on that,” she says. Asked about measures to rescue women from violent customers, she recollects a ‘blow the whistle’ campaign for transgenders and men-having-sex-with-men (MSM) by the Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), where the idea was to keep a whistle close by and blow it to signal that they were being harassed. We could have such whistles here, she says.
The place should have extra rooms to house girls who come to work from other cities, Kalaivani adds. “A girl from, say, Madurai could come to work in Chennai without knowing a soul here. Standing at the beach and soliciting, she is bound to get raped and abused. If an area is set up for us, she can come there directly and we can avoid such incidents.”
Radha brings up another problem with the present system. She doesn’t know where she’s being taken, and at a place of the customer’s choice, she is completely at their mercy and runs the risk of abuse and not getting paid. In spite of insisting that they wear a condom, several customers are aggressive about not wearing one, and since they have the upper hand, she is forced to let it slide in. Several customers, she says — showering them with abuses — somehow escape without paying. If they had a turf of their own, things would be different and safe, she sighs.
Shailaja* too raises a valid point. In several cases, the brokers pocket the lion’s share and pay out only 25 per cent of the money to the workers. In a demarcated area, people would know where to go and this could minimise the need for brokers.
Finally, Chitra* adds a humane spin to the whole issue. For young twenty-somethings like her with little mouths to feed at home, the ordeal of keeping the sex worker shadow out of the familial picture is a daunting task. After Chitra’s husband left her for another woman over a year ago, she entered the trade, she says, with tears in her eyes. And sometimes, these things can only be discussed with others whom you share the same plight with.
As Kalaivani checks off all the pros of such an area, question her on the possibilities of crime inside the area and she gets defensive. Won’t it become a hotspot for say, drugs and liquor too? “Then clients will force our girls to get high and that complicates things. They become more vulnerable. Why would we do that?” she asks. With women in the profession without the knowledge of their families, an area like this runs a risk — what if they are spotted in the area by some friend or relative? Wouldn’t that give it away? Sanjida pitches in, “We’ll say we are working in the area for AIDS awareness.” Kalaivani throws back a question: “If a friend or relative is hanging around in that area, what does it say about them in the first place?” she laughs.