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Can legal rights change sex workers’ lives in India?

Aug 17, 2015

This fear psychosis is built up in the lives of sex workers through practically every encounter they have, be it their clients, pimps or fellow inmates.

New Delhi: Lilting notes of a popular Hindi film song gently waft through the air. Then the stillness of the night is broken with the music grinding to a screeching halt, as a bunch of men and women run helter-skelter.

Within minutes, half a dozen girls are queued up and paraded to the nearby police station. Crowds gather on the street and sneer at the girls who trail the men in uniform, submissively… This scene is one that is repeated with an eerie frequency in almost all of India’s busy red light areas.

Sometimes such ‘rescue acts’ find their way to an obscure column of a newspaper. However, rarely does the reporter or those who have witnessed the ‘spectacle’ bother to find out what happens to the girls thereafter. Where do they go? Do they live happily ever after, freed from the clutches of their tormentors? States Gitanjali Babbar, Founder of Kat Katha, a Delhi-based non government organisation that works with sex workers and their children to help them normalise their lives, “Let there be no illusions.

These girls and their lives are of absolutely no consequence to anyone, except their families back home, who are dependent on the money they send. The absence of any rehabilitation plan or a system that allows them to be integrated into society with dignity and economic ability leaves them with very little choice but to go back to the flesh trade either through force, coercion or surrender.”

Adds Reena Suri, a Delhi University law student, who is gearing to fight for the rights of those who are trafficked, “The girls who are seemingly rescued are back in the brothel, sometimes in less than a week. Either they are re-trafficked or they come back on their own, unable to rehabilitate themselves, comfortable doing something they know and are familiar with.”

In such a scenario, Babbar and other anti-trafficking activists believe what can perhaps enable them to deal with their vulnerable situation better is awareness of their legal rights. In fact, recently, volunteers and supporters of Kat Katha and Knowledge Steez, a non-profit online legal resource, joined hands to bring together lawyers representing civil society, NGOs, corporates, government agencies and law schools in Delhi to present papers that highlighted issues faced by those who are trafficked and ways in which their legal rights could be protected.

Drawing from stories of those betrayed by their own families or sold into the trade, the technical papers brought out different aspects of the problem using historical perspectives, anecdotal evidence collated from news reports, research studies and personal interactions. They cited various reasons for the black hole of ignorance and fear that dogged these girls at every step, including lack of education and awareness, absence of employable skills, society’s intolerance and bias towards the profession of prostitution and increasing acts of violence and inhuman cruelty justified by perpetrators who label the girls as “bad, immoral and a curse on humanity”.

According to Dr Manoj Sinha, Director, Indian Law Institute, “Our entire social and moral fabric has to be overhauled. Without education, sensitisation, empowerment and proper implementation of laws, including the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), we cannot progress an inch on this subject.” He feels that young legal minds need to devote time and attention to this issue and empower not just trafficked girls but boys, too, so that they can exercise their rights when the need arises.

With nearly 10-30 million sex slaves in the world and more than 50 per cent of trafficked victims being less than 15 years of age (ILO data), the task seems onerous but surely a beginning can be made.

Reena, who has spent time in red light areas, such as GB Road in Delhi, Kamathipura in Mumbai and Sonagachi in Kolkata, has in her gentle and unobtrusive way tried to grasp the legal awareness of sex workers, brothel owners and pimps. The findings of her informal interactions are revealing. She admits, “I was aware of the level of exploitation that the girls are subjected to, but I was not prepared to find them so naïve, gullible and ignorant. They are literally like lambs being led to slaughter, when they are summoned to the police station.” What she finds even more shocking is that the brothel owners, too, are equally ignorant and terrified of the men in khaki. It is the pimp or the middleman who is a lot more “worldly wise” but he usually plays one against the other and is unlikely to present a true picture.

As a result, every time a girl and her brothel owner are summoned to the police station for the flimsiest reason, they are made to shell out exorbitant amounts as fine. If they protest, they are threatened with all kinds of menacing consequences. From pouring acid and disfiguring the faces of the girls to making the brothel owners shut shop, to putting them in prison on fabricated charges, they are made to feel as if they have absolutely no way of getting away.

This fear psychosis is built up in their lives through practically every encounter they have, be it their clients, pimps or fellow inmates, mostly because it suits everyone to have the girls in a state where they cannot stand up for themselves.

So what is the solution? Would legalisation of prostitution help? As per Babbar, the only ray of hope in this dark and grim world is to create a more sensitive society. But since that is not going to happen in a hurry, the next best course of action is to try and make legal education a possibility for the girls who are trafficked. Using the route of civil society and NGOs working in the area to get this going is going to be easier because some trust building has already taken place. It is still a risky proposition because legally aware girls spell bad news for their ‘keepers’ who then construe them as trouble.

Rashi’s story (name changed), however, is an exception. The 29-year-old sex worker, who has been in Kamathipura, Mumbai, for over a decade, has her own ‘practice’ today with four girls and a male attendant who protects them from untoward incidents. She is not your typical ‘madam’ who fleeces her girls and ill-treats them.

She makes sure they are not harassed or exploited, either by customers or by law enforcers, something that the other pimps and brothel owners actually resent. Rashi went through a nightmarish ordeal herself when she was forcibly taken away by armed extremists in Chhattisgarh region and compelled to serve as a sex slave till she managed to run away.

Her first few years in Kamathipura were a terrifying experience where she was often hauled up at the local police station for the most trivial of reasons. The worst, most sleazy customer did not send a shiver down her spine, as did the summons to the local ‘thana’. The very fear of the ‘encounter’, even if there was no sexual contact, was a most de-humanising experience. For her, the biggest anguish was not knowing she had rights or that there were laws that could protect her from this torture. “To be treated like a thing and not a person is something that dissolves all sense of feeling, emotion, desire and even pain. I don’t want my girls to experience that feeling,” she says.

Women like Rashi can make a real difference to the hundreds who are in the sex trade, either by force or by choice. The key to changing their lives for the better lies in creating a more open dialogue on trafficking and sex work, making the law and order of the land fair and accountable and sensitising communities towards what has been the world’s oldest profession.

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