Sixty-nine years on, the words ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’, continue to hold us in a thrall and fire passions. Ironically though, over the years they have come to mean different things to different people.
Metrolife learned this while connecting with the community of ‘voulntary’ sex workers who aren’t apologetic about their profession and neither are seeking any rehabilitation. Their wish, in fact, on this Independence Day is to seek freedom from the discrimination they have been facing from society.
Bringing the political and the sexual together in their discourse, they unabashedly claim, “We enjoy sex.” Behind this facade of boldness they also have a tormenting past which they claim to have have battled. Some have even joined the ‘business for a few extra bucks’ but they say, they are in it ‘voluntarily’. They want to remind society that ‘voluntary’ sex work is legal in this country and that even after 69 years of independence they are not free.
“Our demands are not very different from the LGBT or women’s rights activists. We just want that people consider us a part of this society and let us live a life of dignity,” the group of voluntary sex workers tell Metrolife.
“If one constantly wonders why we are doing it voluntarily then, it should be told that we have faced the worst of poverty and now for us it is over. Through this labour we have become financially independent. Just like you use your hands and minds to do your work, we also do the same. Why is there a stigma on us?” says Anita, who works as a home-based sex worker and sometimes also does shifts at GB Road.
Contrary to popular belief that many of these women were trapped into flesh trade, these sex workers claim they are more ‘independent’. They are not only working at GB Road brothels but have the freedom to choose or decline clients.
Metrolife found out are home, street or call-based ones. A man who has worked at GB Road all his life, and spoke on condition of anonymity, says “most sex workers at GB Road are also voluntary ones”. They had come to the capital a few years ago from remote areas of the country in search of employment. They entered this trade after facing financial crunch in many industries such as export-import, households and construction.
Shalu, a call girl is enrolled in a college and is studying side by side. For “fulfilling some personal expectations” she started providing her services full time. She tells Metrolife, “Call girls are the most independent of the lot. We have a pimp initially, who has tie-ups with hotels. After meeting clients in the hotels we share our contacts, and then he or she can call us anytime they want. This way we save a lot of money. We have to provide only four services in a month and we earn up to Rs 30,000 to 40, 000 through this.”
The sex workers feel protected under the care of their fellow members. The All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) and Milan Mahila Sangathan (MMS) are sex workers collective that work for the rights of sex workers. They educate sex workers about their rights (legal) and duties (health related), so that they can come together in times of trouble. The Supreme Court panel on trafficking has also recently acknowledged the self-regulatory body (SRB) model of Sonagachi sex workers as the best model to curb human trafficking.
“There is no one for us, the government and human rights activist want to rehabilitate us and give us a new life but we are earning much more here, our children are able to go to school and thankfully they wouldn’t have to do this work. Now, if we go to any Nari Niketan they will feed us pheeki dal-roti. Today we can have chicken roti everyday,” says Sunita. She argues that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956, sections 3, 4, 5c, 7, 8 17, 18, are coming in the way of their livelihood.
Amit Kumar, national coordinator for AINSW says, “The DCW chief Swati Maliwal recently equated prostitution with rape and wants to eradicate this “blot”. But it should be clear to her that rape is sex without consent, which is not the case here. Some of the women who have been rehabilitated have come back by conning the authorities. If the life in rehabilitation was good, why would such a situation arise?”
In rehabilitation centres, these women are given six-month courses in sewing, tailoring and other crafts to start a new living but according to many sex workers, like Sunita, who have returned from the centres, “there are no jobs for us when we come out”.
Says Sunita, “There is market for sex, but there is no market for ‘rehabilitated sex workers’. How much money can I earn in a month with tailoring and, can I compete with the already existing market? My family will die of hunger by the time I establish myself. First you create the market where we can go and start our new jobs and then try to rehabilitate us.”
The issues of voluntary sex work and forced rehabilitation can be related to Deepa Mehta’s Water. The film follows the lives of widows in a vrudhashram, who want to maintain their social grace under the roof of a godly world. But due to extreme poverty they have created a vicious institution where they have to provide sexual services to affluent zamindars in return of money.
Widow remarriages were then legalised by the colonial laws, but in practice, they were largely considered a taboo.