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The Harsh Reasons These Housewives In Bangalore Chose To Become Sex Workers

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By Maitreyee Boruah 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.


“I am illiterate and unskilled. I need money to run my household. Now, this (sex work) is my job and I am proud of it as I have sacrificed a lot for my family,” says Jaya Prabha (name changed) with a stoic face. For her, sex work is a lesser evil than watching her children starve.

Jaya is one of many housewives in Bangalore who do sex work to make ends meet. A sex worker in this city can earn anywhere between ₹500 and ₹3,000 a day. Most of these women are illiterate, and from economically weaker sections.

For Kamala Naik (name changed), resorting to sex work was a no-brainer after her husband, the sole breadwinner of the family, met with a disabling accident. Her husband supported her decision. How else were they to put food on the table.

But then, says Kamala, sex work was not her first choice to earn money. The accident that left her husband disabled took place in 2010. A good tailor, Kamala took up a job in a garment factory. But the ₹5,000 a month she made was hardly enough to keep food on the table and clothe the family.

As it happened, a friend of hers turned out to be a sex worker, who was making between ₹10,000 to ₹12,000 per month. In dire need, Kamala switched jobs.

“Working as a sex worker, I not only cleared my husband’s medical bills, but I also got enough time to nurse him back to reasonable health,” she says.

Lakshmi M. (name changed), however, is not Kamala. Nobody in her family knows she’s a sex worker. Her home is not in Bangalore, but her workplace is. Every day, she travels nearly 30 kilometers to Majestic, Bangalore’s busy central bus stand. There, she solicits clients, and calls it a day at about 2.30 p.m. to return home.

“My husband and children think I work as a domestic help in the city. Only my clients and other sex workers know the truth. I’ve been leading this double life for eight years,” says the 38-year-old. “I took up the profession because I want my three children to get a good education. I’m also scared of poverty. My husband is a carpenter and makes ₹12,000 a month, which is not enough for a family of five.”

Takes A Lot To Run A Home

Nisha Gulur, a transgender rights activist who works closely with sex workers and sexual minorities, says such is the curse of penury that once these women begin to earn money, they start getting respect from their families and communities.

“Financial independence enhances their status and empowers them as individuals and women,” she explains.
The garment factories and incense stick units where the workforce primarily comprises of poor women, like Jaya, demand long hours of work for a paltry salary. Harassment, physical and mental, is part and parcel of the job. Work as a domestic help is no better.

“I’m not implying that flesh trade is all hunky-dory. Violence, abuse and exploitation by customers and the police go hand-in-hand,” says Gulur. “This is the minimum risk they agree to when they take up the profession,” she remarks.

Poverty Decides Work

“In my long experience in this field, I have come across mostly Dalits and lower caste women getting into the (sex work) profession. The obvious reason is that Dalits and lower castes are mostly poor. We also have women who are from powerful communities like Lingayats and Vokkaligas. But they are very few. We don’t have any figures with us, so we are planning to have a proper survey on caste of sex workers in Karnataka,” says Bharati, general secretary, Karnataka Sex Workers Union (KSWU).

The Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society says there are about 85,000 sex workers in the state. Bharati, whose organisation works to help sex workers get access to identity cards, welfare schemes and protection from violence and discrimination, says that only a negligible number of sex workers registered with KSWU are housewives.

Interestingly, a book titled “Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work And The Law In India” delves into the secret world of Indian sex workers who are married and engaged in the trade without the knowledge of husbands and families. Written by Dr. Prabha Kotiswaran, a reader in Law and Social Justice at, King’s College London, the award winning book is based on research done in 2 cities – Kolkata and Tirupati.

Nagasimha Rao, a Bangalore-based activist offers some more perspective on why housewives in particular tend to take up sex work, “In urban poor families, housewives have a much tougher role. Some of them are not even allowed by their husbands to work but are expected to maintain the household, including the growing needs of children with a paltry sum of money. And in any case, labour cost is very cheap in India, at least no way enough to fulfill the basic needs of life. So it’s easier to woo housewives into the flesh trade. There is a possibility of earning good money without toiling all day long.”

Clearly, it’s centuries of oppression, of caste, of class and even economical, that has led to many housewives, with and without families, to take part in the sex trade. And often enough there is a simple explanation. As Jaya succinctly asks, “I want to get out of this profession, but I can’t. What should I do? Who will give me a better-paying job?”


About the author: Maitreyee Boruah is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist and a senior member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. Her reporting reflects issues of society at large and human rights in particular.

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Image source: Adam Cohen/Flickr

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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