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.”
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.
“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.