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Morality Vs Human Rights: What India Needs To End Exploitative Sex Work

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I was with some of my friends visiting Bangalore some 11 years ago. We were waiting for a bus to the Majestic, and the area we were roaming around must be near Yelahanka. Three teenage girls showed up and after some time, struck a conversation with us. We obviously weren’t surprised by their fluent English as Bangalore is a pretty literate city. We were only surprised at their spontaneity. After about five minutes of mundane conversation, they exclaimed, “If you want to have fun, 1000 should be enough for a night!”

We were little boys. We shrugged in fear and left the place as hastily as we could. We couldn’t do this.

But the reality is far far different from what it seems. Sex work in India is not an evening stride by the bus stop like we witnessed that day. Life is hell for people who are into it; low levels of literacy, sexual health, freedom and social taboos bind them in a vicious circle with very little support from government mechanisms in general.

During the British East India Company’s rule in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British set up comfort zones for British troops wishing to make children and women into sex tools to satisfy British soldiers who frequently set up their own Prostitution rings. A write up by the BBC states that British troops helped establish prostitution dens across India in capitals such as Mumbai which is now the hotbed of sex work.

Brothels are illegal de jure but in practice are restricted to certain areas of any given town. Though the profession does not have official sanction, little effort is made to eradicate or impede it. The largest and best-known red-light districts – Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai, G. B. Road in New Delhi, Kashmiri Market in Agra, Ward No. 14, Silchar Assam and Budhwar Peth in Pune, house thousands of sex workers.

In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of over 3 million female sex workers in India, with 35.47% of them entering the trade before the age of 18 years. The number of sex workers rose by 50% between 1997 and 2004.

An in-depth study of red light areas shows that commercially sexually exploited women (CSEW) are pushed into the trade at a young age, at times even before they attain puberty, and thus are not aware of the trap they are falling into. Once in the trade, there is no escape until the brothel keeper has earned well enough through them. Here they are subjected to physical and mental torture if they refuse to abide by the wishes of the keeper. As most women have no formal education, they have no knowledge of how much they earn.

If they are allowed to leave the set-up, they are most probably a victim of life-threatening diseases like AIDS, without any place to go to. Thus in all probability, they will continue in the area and start soliciting and earning. Once trapped in the trade, women get pulled into a vicious circle from which escape is difficult.

Reaching women who are working in brothels has proven to be quite difficult due to the sheltered and secluded nature of the work, where pimps, Mashis, and brothel-keepers often control access to the women and prevent their access to education, resulting in a low to modest literacy rate for many sex workers.

Many organisations work in Kamatipura, dealing with aspects like the rescue of minors, dealing with health awareness and treatment with special focus on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, providing counselling services, de-addiction programmes, skill development and training, etc. Some organisations help in taking care of the children of the CSEWs by providing full-time care, protection and education through the day/night care shelters or residential homes away from the red light area.

Some prevention programmes by the government have penetrated through and helped in uplifting the general sexual health of the sex workers in the last two decades. A positive outcome of a prevention programme among sex workers can be found in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. The education programme targeted about 5,000 female prostitutes. A team of two peer workers carried out outreach activities including education, condom promotion and follow-up of STI cases. When the project was launched in 1992, 27% of sex workers reported condom use. By 1995 this had risen to 82%, and in 2001 it was 86%.

While many political debates target on criminalising the business and banning it in legal terms, this idealism is really biased. Over the years, India has seen a growing mandate to legalise sex work, to avoid exploitation of sex workers and their children by middlemen and in the wake of a growing HIV/AIDS menace.

The realisation of such a large number of sex workers in the country automatically dictates that a much nobler outlook for them must be built in the eyes of the people as well as the law. The eradication or criminalisation of sex work in India, both are perverse dreams which come out of the need to portray India and her people untouched by a supposed ‘menace’. Most of the times, such debates are political than moral.

One could reckon that sex work should be legalised in India and sex-workers must be provided with an equal social status in the country. More the education, health and global awareness penetrate into the rings, more the children born into them would try to join the mainstream, more this dream of ending exploitative sex work can be realised. There is no spontaneous way of doing it.

After all, if they are getting paid for it, someone is willing to pay for it. The issue of morality is lost in the question itself.

Image source: Soumitra Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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