By Debdutta Mohanty Ray for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Editor’s note: For decades, sex workers in India have been pushed to the margins, forced to deal with shame and stigma from society. ‘Unheard Stories’ is a series of six stories by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with 101 Reporters that aims to bring these narratives to the fore, to build a more inclusive and accepting society.
“You do not have to change my name. I stand by what I say,” says 25-year-old Sintu Bagui, a trans woman and part-time sex worker in the Sonagachi district of Kolkata.
Sintu’s mother passed away when she was 21. She lives with her father, elder sister and her kids, and her grandmother.
An activist with a local NGO since 2009, fighting for rights of transgender individuals is Sintu’s main job – “I am not a full-time sex worker. I do it 3-4 times a month. I do not go to brothels. I get calls and I go to hotels and apartments.” And she is clear about why her fight is important – “Government promises so much and does nothing. State governments do not have a say at all. If the government does not do anything, we’ll have to continue with this (sex) trade,” she explains.
And according to Sintu, the stigma associated with being transgender is what forces most of the community into this trade – “I was forced to drop out of school. My parents did not support me. Society did not accept me. Then do I have a choice? Most trans people from poor families do not get an education, and a job is a distant dream. We are accepted as sex workers. So our numbers are high in this trade.” The bottom line for her is very clear – “If there is no other work available for us, sex industry is always there for us.”
When she was born, Sintu was assigned the male gender. Her parents were happy. But as soon as her parents came to know of what Sintu really wanted, they went into a state of shock and depression.
“I am sure all parents would want to have a ‘sexually straight’ child. It’s not a shock for me that my parents were not ready to accept that I am not a boy. My parents do not know that I am a sex worker. They know that I am an activist. It is hard for them to accept so many things. Things would change only if society changes,” says the transgender rights activist.
When she was in class VIII, Sintu was thrown out abruptly. It was a boys school. “As soon as my peers came to know about my gender identity, there was teasing. I was bullied, and sexually harassed. That was the beginning,” she recalls.
Out of school, she started working in a plywood factory, “I was 15. The factory was no good either. I was harassed and sexually abused by other labourers. It was difficult for me to face the violence. I was mentally and physically traumatised. I quit and became a sex worker. I got money for it.”
For Sintu then, sex work is not a profession, “I became a sex worker to make a living. I was paid to have sex with someone. So I did it. I will not call it a profession.”
A daily reality for many, Sintu tells YKA how things are for her: “Sex workers are abused mentally and physically. Sometimes some men try to abuse me, but they know I am an activist. That holds them back. Everyone wants respect in society, even these men who call me for sex.”
“They know if we want, we can also harass them. But I would still say violence against us is much more than that against a female sex worker,” she adds.
Bharati Dey, secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Songachi, suggests otherwise, “When it comes to violence against sex workers, trans people are tortured the most. Clients abuse them a lot more when compared with female sex workers. Police is rude to them…”
And that’s something Sintu agrees with, saying the police doesn’t even consider transgender people human – “If I go and complain about a trans woman being raped, the police will ask, ‘What is there to be raped? You are a sex worker, aren’t you?'”
But Dey’s organization is trying to change things, “Now, we have a group called as Anandam. It is for the transgenders. They can fight for their rights. If the police does not listen to them, we are there to help.”
“We are treated differently everywhere… Even if I had a good enough education, I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a job,” declares Sintu.
According to her, a transgender sex worker makes anywhere between ₹500- ₹1000 a day. As an activist and a sex worker, Sintu’s monthly income is around ₹9000.
But the money she makes is not fixed even with sex work – “We have to agree to far less payment. There is a lot of hard bargaining. But if I do not agree to ₹500, someone else will agree for ₹400. At least that way I will get some money.” And she is cheated far too often, “Sometimes, these people will say there are two customers, but then four men turn up.”
Despite all that, she says, earning and saving money is the only way she can secure a future for herself – “I think my sister’s children will accept me as I am and I will live with them. That is my wish. But who knows? If they don’t, then what will I do?”
Asked if she would continue working as a sex worker if given a chance, Sintu promptly replies, “When will there be anything else for us to do? I don’t see that in the next 10 years. Why should I harbour dreams?”
But Sintu wants to get married for sure. “Who doesn’t?! I want to go for a sexual reassignment surgery. That is my ambition,” she says. But with the caveat that it would mean that she gets her hands on a lot of money, which, she feels, is something which will take a miracle.
About the author: Debdutta Mohanty Ray is a Mumbai-based journalist. She has six years of experience in print journalism. She has worked with national dailies. Her area of interest is social and human interest stories.