A sex workers’ rally by Durbar in the city of Kolkata
Sarita Santoshini is the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow in Reproductive Rights & Justice.
It’s a humid summer afternoon in Kolkata, one of India’s largest metropolitan cities. Kolkata is known for its laid-back pace, but the three-story building that serves as the office of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is buzzing with activity. A group of women are gathered in the courtyard area inside for a discussion, rooms are occupied with people engaged in meetings, and the bench in the waiting area is never empty. Outside, young boys play a game of cricket. About half a mile away is Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red- light districts. From the DMSC’s office, a staff largely composed of sex workers has been fighting for the rights of its community in Sonagachi—as well as for sex workers across the country—for several years.
The DMSC’s work began in 1992, when Dr. Smarajit Jana led a team of medical professionals to Sonagachi to initiate an intervention program aimed at controlling the spread of HIV and other STIs. The very basic objective then was to ensure that sex workers convinced their clients to use condoms. Jana and his colleagues started working with sex workers who were interested in becoming peer educators, helping them learn how to discuss HIV and urging them to talk to their peers about seeking clinical services and testing. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, recalls Jana, “We soon realized that training sex workers wasn’t going to be enough to enforce the use of condoms. Why would a client listen to her if he considered himself more powerful in every way?”
Johns enjoy higher social and economic statuses than the sex workers they patronize and are conditioned to believe they can do whatever they want when paying a woman for sex. It doesn’t help that local police and service providers often violate and discriminate against sex workers: Sex work is not illegal in India, but 1986’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act makes sex workers vulnerable to exploitation through bans on brothel keeping, living on earnings of sex work, and soliciting in public places. Sex workers’ reproductive rights and sexual health, Jana realized, could only be secured after basic human rights. So the sex workers he and his colleagues worked with unionized in 1995 to form DMSC as a forum to empower themselves through collective bargaining power, with Jana as their chief advisor. The idea was to regain dignity and confidence, to challenge their status in society, and to empower themselves to stand against violations of their basic rights. Today, about 65,000 sex workers count themselves among DMSC’s members.
Sex workers march through a street in the Indian city Kolkata protesting U.S. denial of visas to attend an AIDS conference.
One of them is Shefali Roy, a 50-year-old sex worker and resident of Sonagachi, and it’s only when I meet her that I truly understood the strength and impact of the movement. Roy migrated to Kolkata at the age of 17 and was looking for a way to earn money; an acquaintance, who she later realized was a middleman for the skin trade, forced her into the profession. Confused and scared, Roy faced harassment for several years from her brothel keeper and goons who’d take away most of the money clients paid her and from police who’d charge her with sticks, take bribes, and seek sexual favors after reprimanding her for waiting for clients on the streets. “I didn’t know how to take care of my body—or that I ought to. Who’d tell me? We were all on our own,” she recalls. She remembers developing symptoms of an STI, but any attempt to seek treatment was met with discrimination: “The doctors wouldn’t touch us.” It was only after becoming a peer educator for the HIV/STI intervention program that Roy learned she had to take care of her own reproductive health before everything else. “My body. My consent. My money. My rights. I learned the mantra of life from [this] community and its work.”
DMSC now runs 37 health clinics across the state of West Bengal where sex workers can receive treatment and counseling without discrimination. In 2011, it incorporated a maternal- and child-health program; services for early detection of pregnancy and abortion are also provided. When the children of sex workers are growing up, they’re ensured admission into schools and provided sports and cultural training as well.
Roy is also part of a self-regulatory body whose board members include representatives from the medical and legal fraternity, among others. The board intercepts new entrants into red-light areas in the city to ensure that they’re not minors or victims of trafficking. They make sure new entrants are not being forced into the profession against their will in any way. Minors and trafficked girls are sent back home or are offered to move into short-stay homes, connected to boarding schools, or provided alternate occupations. According to DMSC, the impacts have been manifold: The proportion of female minors working in red-light areas has declined dramatically, and the median age of sex workers has increased from 22 in 1992 to 26 in 2014. Most importantly, this group has kept a check on trafficking without the indiscriminate raid-and-rescue operations that often lead to the abuse and harassment of sex workers.
The next step is to change the wider perception of Indian sex workers’ lives. Bollywood has used the lives of sex workers and courtesans as a recurring theme for several decades now. In 2008, Point of View, a Mumbai-based nonprofit organization, made Zinda Laash: Bollywood’s Norms for Dhandewalis, a compilation of clips from Bollywood films in the last six decades that had lead actors play the roles of sex workers. The film comes with descriptions and transcripts in an attempt to call out stereotypes about sex workers that have been reinforced by the film industry.
Bollywood’s representation of sex workers generally takes one of two extremes: Either you’re a glamorously dressed courtesan, sympathetic and musically gifted, or you’re a loud, coarse sex worker who can usually be found smoking, drinking, or hurling verbal abuse. At either end, the characters tend to remain shrouded in shame and judgement and fail to develop identities beyond their profession as the story progresses. Most often, they’re looking for a hero to redeem them and are made to seem likeable by sacrificing for love.
Kalki Koechlin as protagonist Chanda in Dev.D
Not many films have portrayed the complexity and nuances of life that Roy and Jana speak of, but I’m reminded of a few that did come close, like Chameli, which portrays the sex worker as strong, street smart, and unapologetic, and Dev.D, in which the young protagonist becomes a sex worker as a last resort, but she goes to college by day and is like any other woman when not working.
Sex work is often referred to as the oldest profession in the world, and if there’s any truth to that, then it’s about time that we recognized sex workers’ rights like those of any other working woman’s and looked at their lives from a fresh perspective, without the cliché of films.