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How Young Women Were Pushed Into Sex Work When Dance Bars Shut

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By D. Shyam Kumar 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.


“Excuse me, are you going to Bilaspur? Is the train on time?”

The question has been put to a man standing on the platform by a young woman. The two get talking. The casual chat streams into the personal. Families, friends and relatives are discussed. After a while, the woman gives enough hints of her intentions, who she is… The man catches on fast. She names a rate and is flexible on the place – her private space or a place of his choice. The man has doubts. He backs off fast and moves to a different spot on the platform. The woman saunters out of his sight.

Such encounters are common place at Raipur Railway Station. The flesh trade in Chhattisgarh thrives on at railway stations, bus stands and malls, all of them considered ‘safe’ and accessible venues by the modern-day sex workers who are bold and ‘independent’ operators.

With development not touching their lives, more and more women from semi-urban and rural areas of the state are joining the ranks of sex workers.

Most of these sex workers are in their 20s, some are older and quite a few in their 50s. The last lot are ‘agents’, who pimp for the younger women.

Pooja (name changed) is one of many such women in Raipur.

“I have been a sex worker for five years. I was a bar dancer in a suburban bar of Mumbai. After dance bars were legally barred, the police raided the bar where I worked with seven other girls. We were hauled to the police station, held there, fined and let off,” she narrates.

Pooja hails from a small village in Assam. A friend lured her to Mumbai with the promise of a job as a domestic help and her parents too supported it. Driven by extreme poverty, she eventually ended up in a dance bar.

For representation only. Source: Ritesh Uttamchandani/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
For representation only. Source: Ritesh Uttamchandani/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

“There were other girls, too. From UP, Bihar and Karnataka. Some men used to drive us to the bar in their vehicles. But some of the girls worked independently. The men took most of the money we got in tips. We were paid a salary and a portion of the tips. When the police raided the bar, and we were nabbed, none of these men came to our rescue. The manager of the bar bailed us out and paid the fines.”

Post the lock-up experience, Pooja tried to find work, any kind of work, but failed. She needed money to pay for shelter and food. One of the girls suggested they move to Nagpur as there was a requirement for bar dancers in that city.

“So, I accompanied her to Nagpur. That was the turning point in my life. The agent who we met told us bluntly to become sex workers. Suddenly we were his prisoners. We were beaten when we refused. After a while, I couldn’t take the beatings anymore and I became a sex worker.”

That was just the beginning.

“I don’t know how many men forced themselves on me those days and nights in Nagpur. We were just objects of pleasure. I caught jaundice, and then tuberculosis. I was admitted to a mission hospital where I underwent treatment for six months,” says Pooja.

Whatever little money she had, went for the treatment. At the hospital, she met Kamli, who was being treated for HIV. Kamli brought her to Raipur. “From that day on, I have been here. Kamli became my agent. She had her old contacts.”

Once, a day after Holi, Pooja and a few other sex workers were contracted by a private party to dance at an event in Bilaspur. But before the event could begin, they were arrested by the police. That was how Pooja met many other girls plying the same trade.

“My contacts grew from then on. We stay connected despite the fact that many of us don’t even know each other’s real names. But being networked helps us in the flesh trade.”

Kamli, her pimp, is these days weak with the HIV infection. Pooja has broken ties with Kamli though she often calls on her and helps her with money.

Pooja says in cities like Durg, Bhilai, Raipur, Bilaspur, Raigarh, Korba, Sarguja and Ambikapur, many women are engaged in the flesh trade. And gone are the days when flesh trade was confined to shabby street corners and pimps dealing with customers. Most of the young sex workers are dealing directly with the customer.

A senior police officer says the outward spread of towns and cities; plethora of new hotels and lodges and the lax laws, have all given a push to this trade.

“There is nothing much our department can do. We raid, we fine and then they are free, again. A policy should be framed to control this trade. Government and non-government agencies should work out a strategy to make these women self-reliant through special government schemes,” he says.

Social worker N.N. Sharma endorses the police officer’s views. “There is no framework or special policy. Every month there are around three to four cases of sex workers arrested in the state,” says Sharma, who is State Coordinator for an NGO.

Pooja’s story is a reflection of many like her in the state and elsewhere. When you ask her about her family, she refuses to talk, only stating that she wouldn’t be a sex worker if she had one.

For Pooja, the risks of this trade are a balancing act for a secure future. Risks, that include things like sexually transmitted diseases. As she concludes, “I always keeps condoms with me and I never have sex with any man unless he wears the condom I give him. Saheb, I may do this work for a few more years. I’m depositing money in a women’s bank for the future.”


About the author: D. Shyam Kumar is Raipur based reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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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