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“Sex Workers Are Still Unnoticed, Neglected And Made Invisible From Social Strata”

By Arpita Raj and Indu Pandey:

Glittering attire, loud makeup, a bold personality and sex appeal to impress or to attract their clients, this is how a sex worker is depicted in movies like “Chameli”, “Chandni Bar”, “Dev D” etc. Actually, these are few characteristics which come to our mind instantly when we hear or read about the term ‘sex work’.

A sex worker has nothing to do what others think about them, as for many of them it’s a noble profession. Once their into this profession they have to keep their soul, emotions and more aside in order to be able to work. It is the monetary aspect for which they are into this profession. Sometimes it’s by choice and most of the time not by choice. But after a certain stage that becomes irrelevant.

But one should know as well as make efforts to understand the facts, figures and reality of this profession. Sex work is not only restricted to the act of sexual intercourse only but it goes beyond that. Sex workers face exploitation and violence as their clients know that they are not going to report to the police because no one is going to help them for who they are. Men seem to think that their bodies are up for sale. They think that, with some amount of money, they bought them. In most cases, clients vomit, urinate (clients apparently refer this as a ‘golden shower’) or excrete on them or on their beds. But with time, they have had to adapt to such ugliness.

Due to lack of precautions and sanitation, which is heavily required in this profession, many women die due to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis etc. Sometimes they get pregnant for which they are not compensated and subsequently they have to attend to more clients for survival. Now the situation seems to have changed slightly as these women are now very well aware about the side-effects of having unsafe sex which leads to HIV/AIDS or other infectious diseases as some NGOs are trying to educate and make them aware about protecting themselves from diseases.

There is a video uploaded on YouTube about the village of sex workers called Natpurwa in Uttar Pradesh. The most unusual aspect of this video is that it makes you familiar about one such village whose generations have seen and practiced sex work as work. This is mostly because the people in these villages are solely dependent on sex work as a source of income. The village is named after the Nats who are known as traditional performers or dancers. This community has slowly shifted from its talent of dancing as source of entertainment to sex work as a means of survival. People in the village call it a tradition that has passed on from one generation to another. It was a bit shocking to see the existence of this village whose generations have lived with the help of sex work. These villages are neither able to educate their children nor make them capable of fetching jobs.

Dealing with customers. Sumi negotiating a business deal in the classic attitude of sexual soliciting. During business hours there is no room for personal relationships. Sumi becomes a victim of Zakir's tyranny due to the insiduous influence of Fatima's feminine dominance over her in business of sex. Kolkata, India, April 6, 2005. (Photo by: Majority World/UIG via Getty Images)
Source: Majority World/Getty Images

According to a Human Rights Watch Report, there are 20 million sex workers in India and about 35% of them enter into this profession before the age of 18. However, according to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (IPTA) the client may be punished if the sex worker is below the age of 18. The causes which drag these women into this profession are primarily poverty, pressure on women within families after husband’s death or divorce, human trafficking, etc. Sex work in India is largely unorganised and unmonitored.

In the Indian legal context, sex work is not explicitly banned but brothels, pimping, and soliciting are. In India, the law that governs sex work is Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (IPTA) of 1956. This targets the trading aspects such as pimping, brothel keeping etc. There is a difference between trafficking and sex work. This law doesn’t make sex work illegal.

On August 31, 2016, the Delhi Police busted the biggest trafficking racket (over 5,000 girls from Nepal and West Bengal trafficked) in the red light area of G.B. road, Delhi. In this case, Delhi Police arrested the culprits under Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA) which is to control organised crime and terrorism. MCOCA can be of great help in dealing with such cases as it can help in punishing those involved in trafficking. Recently, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development drafted a bill called Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2016.

According to a report, more than 1500 sex workers living in the red light district of GB Road in Delhi had their names in electoral rolls. They believed that they were exercising their rights as they felt the need to replace the existing government. The question that remains to be asked is why these people are still fighting for the right to equality, even after being around for a long period of time. There’s hardly any political party that had addressed their issues after winning elections at any point of time. Sex workers are still unnoticed, neglected and made invisible from social strata.

It will be absolutely wrong if we continue to neglect their demands for identity cards, voting rights, health facilities and old age pensions. They should have access to all these as citizens of India. It is only at the time of elections that the major political parties pay attention to their Voter IDs or Aadhaar cards. According to this report, in the 2008 assembly elections of Delhi, over 80% of sex workers had cast their votes. This was possible with the help of enrolment camps which were organised by the Delhi State Election Commission.

The other side of the story reveals a negative and hopeless one that there are many sex workers who are being forced to cast votes by various politicians, policemen and brothel owners. These sex workers believe that elections arrive every now and then but there hasn’t been any significant change in their living condition.

We can’t cover them under the blanket term  ‘victim’. They are independent women who can exercise their rights if allowed to do so. They need better working conditions, proper monitoring and better health care facilities for their survival. Legalisation can help them in fighting with dignity and breaking the silence. The LGBT community have come on the streets to fight for their rights. But so many sex workers are still fighting against the society to come out of their homes and walk freely on the streets. They have become mute spectators who are forced to survive with hidden identities. The only solution seems to be collaboration of these identities to stand against the exploitation and ask for reformed law that can change their lives and living conditions.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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