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.
“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.