CHENNAI: Sex work is a profession that has prevailed for ages, and by law it is not illegal. And yet, it is also being shunned by the same society that created it and needs it, with sex workers being treated abhorrently and inhumanely in many places. “People think sex workers form only a small portion of the population. In reality, there are over 6,300 sex workers in Chennai, 90,000 in Tamil Nadu and over 45 lakh to 50 lakh in India alone,” says AJ Hariharan, founder secretary, Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), an organisation working since 1994 to promote well-being of sex workers.
There are many reasons why a person becomes a sex worker — financial situation, desertion by husbands, incest at home, and abandonment. “Poverty compounded by some kind of exclusion or marginalisation is the main cause. For example, a woman in poverty, with a child whom she has to support and educate. In such situations, moral questions like sex work or not don’t arise. It’s more a question of safe decent-wage livelihood options,” explains Shyamala Nataraj, founder, South India AIDS Action Program (SIAAP), which works towards rights for sex workers since 1990.
She explains that in 2011, a pan-Indian survey with about 15,000 sex workers, showed that over 60% of them had taken to sex work after a stint in some service industry or as domestic help. The reasons they quoted for taking up sex work were the wages weren’t enough and they were constantly being sexually harassed and/or being abused by their proprietors. “A sex worker earns around `2,000 to 3,000 a day, on an average, using which she is able to support and educate her children,” explains Tharani Rajan, senior manager, SIAAP, adding that this monetary benefit makes women overcome their initial hesitations in the profession.
The question of rehabilitation of sex workers is a debatable one. “Rehabilitation is important, but it has its time and place. The way I understand sex work is like a continuum with four overlapping stages,” Shyamala says, elaborating on the stages — one, an unbearable situation that pushes her into it, where prevention is of utmost key; two, the initial stages of sex work, where they have to face many issues like finding a safe client, pay bribes, client abuse and violence, STD and health issues.
This stage is when rescue is called for; three, a stage of coming to terms with their work, and it’s too hard to give up, having tried several times; four, after old age when they can no longer sustain in this profession. “The second stage is when many women wish they can leave. But they’re in a place where they don’t know how to ask anyone, consumed by guilt, shame and fear. So it’s hard to find these women and rescue them,” she explains. As for those in the third stage, she says they now have networks of friends and NGOs and make decent money.
“Now, we can only ask for their rights and let them do what they want to do with dignity and live with dignity,” she opines, adding that currently, prevention, rescue and rehabilitation are all enforced on women who are in stage three, instead of to those who need it.
Hariharan agrees, saying “Sex work is work, and we want to give a choice of rehabilitation to the woman in question. Rehabilitation models should be long-term, over three to five years, and the woman should be willing.” The present models involve sex workers being raided and confined in prisons or shelters, and forced into some other work — which seems like punishment, thus causing it to fail. This discourages them to get into other sources of employment as they no longer believe in it. Instead, providing alternative job will help them in the long run. “It’s better to provide skills which can be learnt and never forgotten — like driving. This works because even if you train them once, they will remember it. And if rehabilitation fails this one time, they can get back to it any time later,” he advises.
4 STAGES OF THE JOB
An unbearable situation that pushes one into this job
Initial stages of sex work where they face several issues
Coming to terms with their work
Old age, when they no longer continue this work
A Supreme Court Panel in 2011 recommended:
(i) Prevention of trafficking; (ii) Rehabilitation of sex workers who wish to leave sex work; and (iii) Conditions conducive for (voluntary) sex workers to live with dignity, in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
This was discussed in a recent meeting in the city, organised by the South India AIDS Action Program (SIAAP), and Nirangal, members of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), and of the Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition (TNRC), as part of the Pride events in Chennai.