Empowering Female Sex Workers in India

by Nancy Needhima on  August 16, 2012 at 12:06 PM Medindia Exclusive - Interviews and In depth Reports
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Prostitution, the oldest profession intensely judged by societies addicted to dogmas has undergone verbal reincarnations. Whore, slut or even prostitute — words deemed as ultimate insults have mellowed down to a dignified expression 'sex worker'. A. J. Hariharan, Founder Secretary of Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), employees at ICWO and sex workers discuss with Medindia how much the lives of Female Sex Workers (FSW) reflect the diction change.

Stigmatisation of Sex Workers

Until 1990, the orthodox image of Chennai led to a prevalent belief that there were no sex workers in the city because of the absence of red light areas in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, WHO (World Health Organisation) conducted an exploratory ethnographic research to build local capacity of the health care system, health officials and local government to combat AIDS and HIV, since its first detection in 1986 in Chennai.  After two years of futile campaign despite cooperation from local governments, who targeted malaria and cholera, WHO initiated a search based on the supposition of 'no' sex workers but discovered 3000 sex workers in Chennai in 1991. The government then planned to reach the sex workers by contacting NGOs and found that only 1% of the population was under HIV threat, and it was the high-risk population, which included Female Sex Workers (FSW), Men who have Sex with Men (MSM), Transgenders (TGs) and Injecting Drug Users (IDU). Whereas 99% of the population was actually at no risk because premarital sex was (still is) a taboo and sex after the age of 55 is anticipated to be low. So the age group actively indulging in sex is between 21 and 55 years.  Ten years ago, lack of information on AIDS/HIV and the pandemic considered vulgar to discuss owing to sexual association, led to misconceptions leaving the high-risk population to be stigmatised for spreading HIV/AIDS.

Scaling the Odds

After analysis of the issues, Targeted Intervention (TI) was implemented focussing on the high-risk population with intense outreach initiatives, peer education programme, IEC (Information Education and Communication) programme, condom promotion, services to counter STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and creation of an enabling environment. But HIV campaigners' concern sparked sex workers to react sharply to the sudden interest in the hitherto hidden community.  Increase in condom sale to the sex workers spread the notion that sex workers spread HIV/AIDS. But the fact remains, it is also the general population bridging the high-risk population and the no-risk population,  that transmits the HIV virus when men visiting the high-risk population infect their wives. Hence clients were educated to make their practices safer to avoid transmission.

When the ICWO was set up in 1994, women were uncomfortable working with sex workers. In fact sex workers did not want to be sex workers. Women end up in prostitution because of inevitable circumstances such as lack of choice, to repay loans borrowed by parents, husbands abandoning their wives with children, human trafficking by falling a prey to false promises of getting jobs or marriage etc.  Details from the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (TNSACS) exposed 150 male brokers (pimps) and 4000 part-time brokers (pimps) linking sex workers and clients. Abstract of the study revealed 6300 sex workers in 2002. But the primary focus of the initiatives was the street based sex workers who faced intense violence on an everyday basis.

Turn of the Tide

After arduous efforts, review of the project revealed an increase in the use of condom to 80%, lowered misconception rate, and an increase in health-seeking behaviour, where 86% of sex workers used condoms, which was the biggest indicator of efforts bearing fruit. Even today health is only the fifth concern to sex workers. Human rights violation by police filing false charges, rape, bribery, violent behaviour of clients, brutality of thugs and denial of housing for sex workers persist. ICWO is against legalisation of prostitution but promotes regularisation of prostitution. "We are not for setting up red light areas or branding or stigmatisation of sex workers", affirms A.J.Hariharan, Founder Secretary, "only as long as prostitution is illegal it can be curbed, protecting more girls from sex work and child prostitution can be prosecuted. However there should be government schemes, keeping in mind the dependents of sex workers, to ensure the next generation stays protected and above all to stop abuse and violence. ICWO supports anti-trafficking, rescues women from police violence, provides sex workers safety and offers alternate job opportunities and self-employment such as driving and setting up shops."

Sex Workers Voice Out

Malavika (name changed) sex worker explains that 10 years ago, no one spoke of prostitution. "Police arrest only women and let the men go as if they are innocent. Unless a sex worker is caught getting paid for the services she offers or invites clients, police cannot arrest her. A lot of 'adjustment' happens in the movie industry, in offices to get promotions, reality shows on TV have repulsive dance moves but they are not harassed. But police demand bribes, arrest us when they see us at a shop or a bus stop." Banu (name changed) trafficked into sex work from a neighbouring state says, "With an organisation like ICWO, we are empowered to help street based sex workers. We have not quit sex work but have reduced our clients, have time to spend with our children, though we can't be seen in public with our kids for their safety reasons. We are taught self-defence to protect ourselves if clients get violent. Our children's education is taken care of, all their way to college."

When Medindia asked, how they explain to their children about themselves, Kala (name changed) responds, "Our lives revolve around our kids and we'd do anything for them. They'll never find out. Clients don't come where we live. Brokers make arrangements and we have personal number for kids to reach us and another number for business. Even if kids find out, we hope they understand how we fulfilled our duties as single mothers. If they are not comfortable, they can always leave, after all we have been ostracised by our families and society, but we now have ICWO to look after us."

Source: Medindia

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