Sex workers from the brothels of G.B. Road, Delhi, had come to see and support Anna Hazare’s protest at the Ramlila Maidan. Unlike motley groups – autorickshaw drivers, traders, farmers and even members of khap panchayats – who announced their solidarity with placards, banners and slogans, this group of sex workers preferred an anonymous presence. Donning ‘Main Anna Hoon’ (I am Anna) caps, they blended in silently and smoothly with the buzzing throngs of men and women.
Perhaps it is this kind of easy amalgamation within society that Supreme Court’s directive on sex workers’ rehabilitation ultimately aims for… but with a placard! Although many sex workers seem gung ho about the ongoing deliberations, their reasons for quitting sex work reveal some complex and mostly overlooked undercurrents.
First the affirmative responses. Non Government Organisations (NGOs) that work among sex workers reveal that most of them are looking forward to being pulled out of their current lives. In fact, many sex workers have repeatedly and desperately asked them for help with alternate sources of employment. Asked if she will be a taker of the government-mooted rehabilitation scheme, Sonam, 31, shot back with “Why not? If the new job can give me as much money as this one, I am willing to give this up… right now! But I do not hate this work. Because of this work, I could buy a two-room house in Delhi and send my daughter to a private school. It is not begging… I work hard to earn a living.”
However, having recently re-discovered her parents and siblings after a gap of 13 years, she says, the fear that her parents and daughter may get to know about her work makes her want to leave. “I do not want to lose them now,” she says. Sonam lost all contact with her natal family in a village in Uttar Pradesh after she was brought to G.B. Road at the age of 15 by a fellow villager. With the help of a kind and loving customer, she has been able to trace her family. She maintains that except for the first few months of homesickness, she has not had much to complain about life in the brothel. Her late madam treated her like a daughter. “This ‘kotha’ and its people are home and family now,” she says.
Sonam’s story adds a different and unseen shade to the lived realities of sex workers, one that contradicts the monotone popular impressions of constant abuse and exploitation.
In an east Delhi slum, Payal, a pimp and sex worker, sits beside a pile of work – half-stitched (fake) denim jeans. Clearing loose threads from each pair of jeans earns her 40 paisa (US$1=Rs 45.2). Payal knows of the scheme and is game for rehabilitation. “I am 54 years old. This is no age for sex work but do I have an option? I tried stitching clothes and still take on work like this (pointing to the pile of jeans) but I could barely survive. My work is hidden from my husband, children, parents, neighbours and even some peers. They all know I pimp but not that I am a sex worker. Now, after nearly 20 years of sex work, I am exhausted at living a double life. Sex work gives a woman better money but takes away her ‘izzat’ (honour) and family. Some politicians and powerful people know me through this work. [She shows me her photographs with a few well-known public figures]. But I want ‘izzat’ now. People should know that I am a good person, a loving mother,” she says.
Payal emphasises that all her “girls” too want to quit this “line” while sharing a recent episode of a young sex worker’s brutal mishandling by a group of drunken customers. The girl apparently is at home with a fractured arm.
The first pan-India survey of sex workers reflects Payal’s circumstances. Among other things it reveals, for example, that for most illiterate women in the unorganised sector, sex work is the most economically attractive option. Moreover, many sex workers often have two or three concomitant jobs/identities – a domestic worker could also be moonlighting as a sex worker, or a factory worker could sometimes be offering sexual services to seniors at work. The survey’s findings crack open the binaries of pleasure versus slavery, choice versus coercion that sex work debates often get embedded in.
Middle-aged sex workers often find it difficult to sustain themselves financially on their dwindling earnings. “Before I die, I want to see a different life. So training me in stitching, etc, is fine but they must give us houses to live in and find us work too. That will be complete rehabilitation,” says a tearful Lalli, who was brought to G.B. Road as a five year old. Having spent a good part of her life in the brothel, she was thrown out when she underwent a “bada operation” (Lalli does not know the name of her ailment, cervical cancer) and was forbidden from sex work by the doctor. However, she also warns of any attempts to shut down G.B. Road, “Daughters, sisters, mothers will be raped in their homes if ‘kothas’ are shut down! Sex work can never be abolished. So it is best to allow sex workers who wish to continue carry on, but improve their living conditions.”
Perhaps this realisation has dawned upon the powers that be – the Supreme Court order stresses upon voluntary rehabilitation only, so those who wish to continue, it says, should be allowed to do so with full dignity as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Fauzia, 29, a home-based sex worker, may not be a rehab enthusiast. She is cynical and prefers to be a fence sitter. She believes that rehabilitation schemes are garbs for abolition. She illustrates this by citing an incident involving a young peer who wanted to quit sex work and was sent to a remand home by the authorities. The girl came back to sex work soon after her incarceration ended. “I work out of my madam’s house and visit clients at theirs. My monthly earning lets me pay my house rent and educate my son. Am paying EMIs (Easy Monthly Installments) for a small plot of land I have bought. I am illiterate, how can I find any other job that gives me as much? I plan to continue this work as long as I am young… will think of substitutes when I am older or if my family comes to know and I am forced to quit,” she says.
Aware of the distrust that the government has earned vis-a-vis its rehabilitation schemes for sex workers, the Supreme Court bench has preempted such reactions. The court order states that sex workers cannot be forced to stay in corrective homes to undergo vocational training.
One hopes sex workers who want to call it quits will be rehabilitated vocationally, financially and socially. Not because they are either meek victims or uninhibited depraved women who need to be morphed into ‘good’ women, but because they have the right to choose their work, whatever it be, and change their mind at any moment of time. Since truth often hides in inter-twined layers of realities, it is vital to look deep, especially when it comes to lives that are misunderstood and misrepresented.
(All names have been changed.)