Noble intentions are
rarely a guarantee of success and that could be true as well of the Supreme
Court’s initiative to help sex workers. It began as an appeal against the
judgment and order—dated 25th July, 2007, and passed by the Calcutta High
Court—which involved the murder of a sex worker. Ultimately, it was converted
into a litigation for the protection of sexually abused women who are compelled
into prostitution: not for pleasure, but because of abject poverty.
Since the initial order was passed by the Supreme Court in February 2011, much water has flowed under the bridge. One of the more important fallouts of the changed litigation was the constitution of a panel headed by senior advocate Pradip Ghosh, and extensive studies to demystify the situation and assess the proposals of various stakeholders. But the most crucial inputs have come from vulnerable women within and outside the ambit of prostitution.
The panel tries to involve, apart from state governments, NGOs working among sex workers as well as sex workers themselves through various collectives, in addition to police and community representatives across the country. What has emerged is a collage of an extensive range of situations, needs, obstacles and possible solutions, adding to the confusion and difficulty in arriving at a uniform solution that might work.
The panel first advocated a comprehensive system of safe homes for rescued women and children of sex workers, vocational training and income-generating activities. However, the reactions from different parts of the country threw up so many options, fears and variables that it shed new light on dangers and possibilities hitherto unforeseen, threatening to render the task of the panel extremely difficult, if not completely incapable of execution.
The proposals by NGOs and sex worker representatives vary widely, both in the eyes of the government and of the proposers, and the functional network of the sex worker’s immediate community.
While no major schemes have been launched
after the Supreme Court panel was set up, many states already have a rescue,
relief and rehabilitation programme. Various schemes to rescue and rehabilitate
trafficked sex workers and minors in prostitution have been introduced by state
departments and NGOs across the country, along with livelihood alternatives.
The programmes vary from state to state, and so does the impact. In fact, the
impact varies from region to region and even from woman to woman.
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is a forum of sex workers set up in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red-light area. Established in the early Nineties, it is meant to address a wide range of issues affecting sex workers. Durbar in Bengali means indomitable.
The brainchild of Dr Smarajit Jana, then head of the HIV/AIDs project in the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health in Kolkata, it began with a census and intervention programme for STDs and HIV among sex workers in Sonagachi. The STD/HIV Intervention Programme (SHIP) launched in the early Nineties was progressively eased into the hands of the DMSC which Jana set up, using sex workers to assist in his programme as peer educators, to spread information on HIV/AIDS and promote use of condoms.
During his interaction with the sex workers of Sonagachi, Jana became familiar with and often involved in various other problems of sex workers, such as their compulsion to keep their money with their landladies, madams, families, paramours, friends, etc., who often cheated them out of thousands of rupees earned over the years. Lacking education, a proper address and proof of identity, and burdened with the stigma of their profession, they found it impossible to open bank accounts.
In this scenario, a major victory for the DMSC was the launch of the Usha Cooperative Bank exclusively for sex workers in the face of much red tape, opposition and difficulties, even changing some laws that came in the way of forming this society. It laid the first stone for an empowerment process that spans a wide spectrum of activities today. Daily deposits from sex workers, sometimes contributing as little as Rs.10, now come to Rs.17 crore and there is a micro-credit programme as well. It has helped free sex workers from the stranglehold of moneylenders and madams who kept them in perpetual debt through exorbitant interest (daily interest of Rs.70 on a Rs.500 loan) and manipulative accounting, ensuring that the women stayed trapped.
With the steady accumulation of savings, their financial empowerment created an improvement in other areas: their access to loans, the ability to educate their children, better living conditions and lifestyle. This success and empowerment helped the formation of other groups and programmes under the DMSC umbrella.
One of these is Mamata, a network of HIV-positive women. It fights for humane treatment of such women in hospitals and enables access to free medication, counselling and legal help where required. Another programme is Amra Padatik, for the children of sex workers. It not only fights for non-discriminatory access to educational institutions without insisting on a father’s name, but has helped dropouts continue their education through an open school and university.
A third is Komal Gandhar, a serious cultural troupe that has performed professionally in India and abroad. The Berebheng (breaking barriers) programme focuses on the education of children. There are also various workshops and interactive sessions with civil society luminaries.
In addition, children are employed on commission for collecting the daily deposits from sex workers for the Usha Cooperative Bank. Their regular visit to the houses of sex workers also helps identify and report instances of violence, illness, presence of trafficked children, or any activity that requires intervention. According to Bharati Dey, secretary of Durbar, this has contributed substantially to reducing violence, anti-social activity and child prostitution in its areas—a claim contested by other NGOs.
Srishti is a vocational training programme for sex workers, their children, and aged sex workers in various income-generating skills, such as beautician, carpentry and other crafts. A beauty parlour called Srishti has been opened by trained sex workers within Sonagachi, providing employment to many children of sex workers and training several more. Over 100 beauticians trained at Srishti work in parlours across the city. Products such as toys and decorative pieces created at the handicrafts training centre are regularly sold at local fairs and exhibitions, earning the makers, usually children, a commission. Two residential homes for children have been set up too.
Another success has been the football coaching for the sons of sex workers across the state and forming over a dozen teams. Two of the boys represented India in the under-19 tournament in Poland and have been recruited to the Army, a far cry from pimping or other exploitative options that most boys take up.
In addition, there is the Sathi Sangathan (made up of babus or permanent non-paying paramours of sex workers to educate them on treating the women well and the use of condoms), a customer care centre for clients, a research centre that helps collect data for various internal and external research programmes, an anti-trafficking unit, and an event management unit that organises craft stalls at fairs for products made by sex workers and their children as well as undertaking catering contracts at such dos.
All the wings are headed by sex workers or their children and are primarily managed by community members.
Dey claims the programme is a huge success and has not only empowered sex workers and their children, but has stopped the entry of minors through its self-regulatory board and prevented exploitation of sex workers in Sonagachi. This claim is refuted by many NGOs who point out that minors are still easily found in Sonagachi, as in all other red-light areas, and are frequently rescued by police.
The Sonagachi model, at least in theory, has
been lauded the world over as a replicable model of community-led intervention
to end exploitation of sex workers and empower them.
However, there are no independent data available to establish whether trafficking, child prostitution and violence have reduced. But the cooperative bank is a roaring success and has definitely improved the financial status of its members.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s directive to governments to set up rehabilitation programmes is unlikely to meet with success.
Several measures have been proposed by the DMSC, including a one-time payment of Rs.15 lakh to Rs.20 lakh for women wishing to get out of prostitution: a financial burden beyond most governments. The West Bengal government, however, has provided low-premium health insurance as well as ration cards, school admissions without father’s name and a sensitisation programme for the police.
The monetary compensation that some states provide has shown mixed results and in some instances, even spawned rackets. Many women who got the money, usually Rs.15,000 to Rs.25,000, have used it to start modest businesses like a roadside tea stall, eatery, paan and cigarette shop, tailoring unit, and so on. This is particularly true of women who were forced into prostitution, those not too successful, or too old to find clients. But the last group continued to maintain links with pimps and madams, helping trap young girls for a commission.
Andhra Pradesh, for instance, provides Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 as soon as a girl or woman is rescued, to help her start afresh. There are complaints that in many instances the girls never received the money at the time of rescue. There are allegations of policemen, pimps, madams and even social workers collecting money on behalf of the girls and never giving it to them.
A study by an NGO called HELP along the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh shows a cyclical journey in trafficking. The police, madams and traffickers are in a mutually enriching relationship and have huge stakes in keeping the racket going. So the woman who takes the money and leaves is back within days: either voluntarily, or forced by her family, or brought back by her madam and trafficker.
In fact many sex workers allow their children and young family members to be rescued and collected the rehabilitation money. This cycle of rescue and return is repeated several times. Thus a well-intentioned government scheme ends up encouraging this trade in women and children.
Uma, who was first rescued at 15, took the money home. Her alcoholic father took it away and resold her. She was set up by the trafficker in three other towns under different names and “rescued” from each place. The “trafficker” and she shared the dole. So apart from prostitution, the staged rescues too became a source of income and increased, instead of reducing, prostitution.
Sukanya from Machilipatnam was rescued in a police raid about five years ago when she was just 15. She had been sold into prostitution at 13. The government gave her Rs 15,000 and an NGO a sewing machine. A while later, in a raid in another town the cops found Sukanya back in prostitution under a new name: Mythili.
Given the nature of the profession, no trafficker is ever convicted. Every arrested trafficker or madam has been acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. Thus, trafficking flourishes unhindered. In a thriving trade, the perpetrators can easily afford to bribe their way out of trouble.
According to Indirani Sinha, director of
Sanlaap, an NGO for the rescue and rehabilitation of women in West Bengal’s
red-light areas, the exercise is unlikely to meet with success in the spirit
intended. The economics are against it.
Few women in their peak years opt to leave the profession. In Kolkata, the average earnings of a mid-level sex worker between 15 and 40, range from Rs 1,000-Rs 5,000 every working day. Only women beyond the productive age—too old to find clients—are likely to opt out. While government doles might help a more dignified retirement, it is unlikely to reduce trafficking or the entry of new women. In fact, former sex workers form a very active community of traffickers and are regular suppliers of girls to brothels. It would be impossible for the government to keep track of the activities of its beneficiaries and verify whether they have indeed left prostitution and related activities.
Since its coffers can provide only marginal aid, most women would be unwilling to leave for such small amounts, even if they do not actually like being in prostitution.