ByÂ Khushboo Aggarwal:
‘A Prostitute’; the word evokes similar thoughts in our minds, a woman who gives sexual favours in exchange of materialistic things, one who sells her body for money. But my visit to G.B. Road, a red-light district of Delhi, for an HIV-AIDS awareness campaign redefined the term for me. When a friend of mine asked me to accompany her to G.B. Road to volunteer in the campaign being organized there, initially I was reluctant. The stigma attached to this profession prevented me from outstretching a helping hand. But once I reached there and got an opportunity to interact with the sex workers, my whole outlook changed. The initial feeling of disgust changed into a feeling of sympathy and finally transformed into a sense of responsibility.
Prostitution is legal in India but several activities related to it are not, such as its solicitation in a public place, owning and managing a brothel and pimping, which was done basically in order to prevent commercialization of prostitution. But as we all know, rules are followed more in breach than in spirit. Even though pimping and managing a brothel are crimes, red-light areas keep on coming up in cities and prominent towns and are flourishing by the day, major ones such as Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai and G.B. Road in Delhi have now become centres of sexual tourism with Mumbai being the largest sex industry centre in Asia, housing over two lakh sex workers. The trade has rose to such an extent, that girls from Nepal and Bangladesh as young as twelve years of age are being trafficked in India and pushed into this profession. By the time they reach their twenties they are part of a vicious circle from which they find no way out.
In Vedic times, ‘nagarvadhu’ tradition was followed in India. ‘Nagarvadhus’ and courtesans enjoyed a high social status and were respected in all social circles. But with the entry of the Europeans, the terms like ‘nagarvadhus’ and ‘devdasis’ came to be associated with the word ‘prostitute’ and decline in the power of royal households of India led to a further decline in their status and position. Now, a time has come when the stigma attached to the profession of sex workers has increased to the extent that they are left to live in pitiable conditions. Those narrow lanes, old buildings and small rooms become their universe and their tiny make-up boxes the most important thing in their lives.
Some women are pushed into flesh trade by their own families for the want of money, some others are there because they were given fake promises of marriage by a lover or given a promise of employment by someone who left them in a brothel while others were deserted by their husbands or disowned by their families and had no other way to sustain themselves. Since most of them are uneducated or rather illiterate, they do not even know how to keep a proper track of their earnings. The women working under the ‘chukri’ system, a system of bonded labour to pay off a debt, are the worst hit as they cannot even calculate when their debt is paid off and they are free to leave. One major threat caused due to their lack of education and awareness is that of them engaging in unprotected sex with clients and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Around fifty percent of the sex workers in Mumbai and forty three percent in Kolkata are HIV positive. Awareness programs, though now being undertaken by various NGOs, are difficult to carry out as these women are closely guarded by their pimps and handlers and are difficult to reach.
Life for them is hard. These sex workers face continuous harassment and abuse not just from their clients but also from the hands of the brothel managers and pimps. Even though ‘The Immoral Traffic(Prevention) Act, 1986’ renders these activities as illegal, still the police and administration turn a blind eye towards the plight of these women. If they are to be believed, they are rounded up frequently by the police and taken to the police station only to face further harassment.
Help is now being offered from various fronts but sometimes even that is not welcome. A sex worker who was sent over to her village in West Bengal to visit her parents by an NGO came never to go back again. The economic condition in her village is so poor that people pleaded her to take their daughters back to the city with her and get them employed in the “factory” she worked at. She found it better to snap all ties with her family rather than pushing those girls into the same well. But the gloomiest part of their lives is seeing their children, their daughters also getting trapped in this poisonous web in which they have been trapped into all their lives. Most of the children born in brothels end up working there, leading the same lives as their mothers. Their only way out is education but, as I was informed by one such girl’s mother, even that is hard to achieve. As it turns out, father’s name, even though not a part of the government’s ambitious ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’, is a necessary condition which most schools demand in order to give admission to the children of sex workers. Despite the problems they face, the bright light in the eyes of these children ignite a ray of hope in my heart as well that unlike their mothers, they will find their way out of those narrow lanes.