An Astute of an Invisible

An Astute of an Invisible
By Aditya Bastola

The embryo of Pune’s Red Light Area
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is growing rapidly and there is increasing global concern and effort for prevention of the disease. To that effect, a few women from the ostracised part of Pune city formed an association of female sex workers, for the women and by the women in the year 1998. Today this association of female sex workers is known as Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sangh. The Sangh aims to bring female sex workers together in order to solve their problems by undertaking initiatives to achieve their rights as human beings.

From the date of its establishment, the organisation has undergone various changes. The organisation was established by female sex workers living in the red light area, with the noble intention of protecting other women from HIV/AIDS infection and inhuman treatment by the brothel keepers, and also to protect their children from becoming victims of second generation trafficking[1]. In this pursuit, members of Saheli Sangh had to overcome heartless treatment from their own community. The brothel keepers did not welcome the members of the Sangh, perceiving them as a threat to their business. If women living in brothels were to be persuaded to become more aware about protecting themselves from HIV/AIDS, then it would imply going against the will of the customers[2], and eventually reduction in business. Most women living in the red light area was at sometime or the other trafficked. Some had been given hope, through the media and/or other sources, of getting jobs leading to ‘a good life’ in the city. However, it often turned out to be false and masking the lack of any real opportunity. Some of these women were sold by their own husbands. Some had chosen to be sex-workers of their own will due to falling livelihood opportunities amongst low-income groups resulting from growing rural hardship as well as a decline in public-sector employment. As stated above, with growing rural hardship and the withdrawal of state intervention, economic reform stimulates the demand for paid sex, and may at times also bolster the supply of sex-workers.[3]

Once the woman has been brought to the red light area, she lives on a sharing basis. If she has been trafficked, then she owes a huge amount in loan to the brothel keeper. When she is purchased from the traffickers to work in a brothel, the price paid for her effectively becomes her own debt at an interest of 12 to 25 %, with earnings shared on a 50/50 basis with the gharwalis (brothel keeper). She also has to pay the rent for her lodging and cover her living expenses, as well as support any children and at times also remit money home to her family. Thus, with the rates paid by customers, which in some cases are as low as Rs 20, the woman may be effectively trapped both in poverty and sex-trade for her entire working life.[4] While staying in the brothel, the conditions are laid down by the brothel keepers and their so-called lovers, and also at times by the pimps. These conditions restrict the mobility of the woman and if she is the member of the organisation and works for other female sex workers, the conditions compel her to find another accommodation. In this process she once again becomes unhoused.

Any adult Indian living in an area for more than 5 – 10 years has the right to vote in that constituency. The female sex workers have been living in that area forever. Despite the provisions and fundamental rights proclaimed under the Constitution of India, they still do not have the right to live a dignified life. Most female sex workers have no right to vote; often their rights are not recognised. In fact, the women are not accepted as legitimate citizens of the nation. Similarly most female sex workers do not have a ration card. When they approach the government officials, they are firstly stigmatised as being sex workers, and then called on an appointment basis. The meeting, however, never takes place. Legally, for the provision of voting rights, a woman has to produce relevant documents as proof of residence. In case of the female sex worker, the house is rented and managed by a brothel keeper. There is no contract which the woman undertakes. This makes her increasingly vulnerable to extreme poverty; her rights are not recognised and she becomes susceptible to abuse at the hands of the local police in the vicinity.

Prosecution requires that sex workers testify against traffickers and third parties like pimps and brothel owners. Since the livelihood of these women depends on these third parties, they are extremely unwilling to do so, which makes their prosecution almost impossible.[5] As a result, a huge sum of money is laured for corruption purpose with various institution for continued existence.

Likewise, under the ITPA (Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act) Amendment Bill, the provision to punish clients visiting brothels under the new Section 5C threatens the very survival of sex workers. Interestingly, the Amendment Bill ignores the profound reality that in order to support children and families, the sex workers may be compelled to accept any client who comes their way, notwithstanding health and safety concerns. Furthermore, sex work will be pushed underground, making it difficult for the sex workers to access HIV/AIDS prevention services. [6]

Coming of Age

Reflecting on these issues of livelihood of a female sex worker, Saheli Sangh had the determination to break the barrier of silence and provide the woman a platform where she could voice her rights against all forms of stigmatisation.

The members of the Sangh started their work by escorting other women for health care to various government clinics and hospitals. The message of HIV/AIDS was spread through door-to-door visits at the brothel level. The informants used various techniques to transmit the knowledge about the care and support of HIV/AIDS, and most significantly the right procedures for using the condom. Primarily the Peer Educators, and also the members of the Sangh, focussed on increasing the negotiation skills of the female sex workers.

Given the fact that most women are in a debt trap, they at times feel miserable about falling into the clutches of the brothel keeper. As a result, in order to pay off the debt immediately, most women perform roles as per the customer’s preference and have unprotected sex. Such practices increase the vulnerability of the women towards being affected by the epidemic. Moreover, the other factor to enable the negotiation skills of the female sex workers is when they are involved with their non-paying sexual partner and regular clients and at times also referred to as so-called ‘lovers’. Many of the latter group are in search of not only sex, but also seemingly of love and affection, either due to unmarried status, or because they are lonely migrant labourers, or as a response to some family conflict. Such regular clients, together with non-paying sexual partners, often constitute the only men with whom women in sex-work are able to form meaningful relationships.[7] Today with the efforts of Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT) and Saheli Sangh, the Female Condom has been introducted to the female sex workers since May 2007. This has enhanced the negotiation skills of the female sex workers and prevented the spread of HIV/AIDS at a nominal level. The line chart presented as Distribution of Female and Male Condoms, reveals results over a six month period (April to September 2007) of promoting female condoms in the red light area. The data highlights the fact that although male condoms are distributed free of cost, there is less demand as compared to Female condoms, which is priced.

The female condom has high demand, because it offers protection when the women have to encounter alcoholic customers, who are often too much at a loss of control to be able to wear condoms, and also due to the denial of the so-called ‘lovers’ to use male condoms. As a result, with the availability of female condoms, today most women who are compelled to perform sex with alcoholic customers and their lovers prefer to use female condoms to protect themselves. This prevents the infection vulnerability towards various diseases such as STIs and HIV. Thus, the data generated through the distribution of condoms clearly indicates an increase in the negotiation skills of the female sex workers.

Similarly, as a collective, Saheli Sangh has not only been able to increase the negotiation skills, but also has had an immediate impact in the reduction of patients referred for HIV testing. The data from the table Distribution of T.B. and HIV Referrals indicate that in the month of April 2007 there was a higher percentage (55) of female sex workers referred for HIV – VCTC (Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre) to Government Hospital as compared to the month of September 2007 (0). The reason for lower proportion of HIV referrals states that, due to higher increase in awareness about the usage of condom and especially with the availability of female condoms amongst the female sex workers, its demand and usage has increased. This has resulted in a fall in the number of women reporting the symptoms of HIV to the counsellor appointed at the organisation.

It is interesting to note that there is a steady increase in patients reporting symptoms of Tuberculosis, 12.5 % to 25 %. At the DIC (Drop in Centre), it is mainly observed that the patients often referred for Tuberculosis are Male members from the mainstream community. The male members seeking medical help at times are also so-called ‘lovers’ of the female sex workers, or are general members who are ignorant about the facilities provided through the government hospitals.

The road less travelled

Despite of meagre results, today the Sangh as members of ostracised community have been able to lobby with various stereotype individuals for the provision of basic human rights. At present, approximately 125 women are provided with ration cards and 50 women have the right to vote. The process to provide other women their basic rights is still in progress at respective government offices. Furthermore, the collective have placed a monitoring mechanism of reporting abuse that occurs at brothels and the police stations. There is Legal Aid Cell established with the assistence of Law Students from various law colleges in Pune City who provide the necessary legal support to the female sex workers especially when they are arrested under false charges. Peer Educators of the Sangh are currently working as Para-Legal Workers in the red light area.

Irrespective of being disenfranchised and dehumanised, the collective of female sex workers have initiated with their own financial support a Crèche which provide shelter to the children of female sex workers, and at times the space for women in need of dwelling and medical care, if discriminated at government hospitals. The Crèche of the collective has also been the rescue ground for many children, and prevention of the second generation trafficking. At present there are 24 children living in the Day and Night Crèche.

Given the fact about the economic status and the impoverished conditions of a woman in sex work, she still has propensity to spend more on her cosmetics, with the belief that she might be able to attract more clients, and pay off the debts. Unfortunately she doesn’t understand the impact of high interest rate and the method of calculations of her debt, because of lack of education. Figures say 95 % of the female sex workers in Pune are illiterate. This often acts as a double sword in the life of a woman in sex work. Understanding these factors, the women’s collective initiated saving groups, today there are 4 such groups who save and borrow money at times of admitting their children at residential homes, meeting the health care needs especially while living as a victim of HIV/AIDS or remit money home to her family. Considering Saving groups’ limited coverage and a lengthy process, the Sangh launched a Cooperative, which was easily accessible to all women in the red light area. At present there are 100 women as members of the cooperative. The Saheli Cooperative has also emerged as a sister organisation of the Sangh. Nevertheless, to provide care and support, the collective have established the only support group of the women in sex work living as People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) in Pune City. This is ‘the only’ support group of its kind. The urgency was felt when the needs of other PLHA groups differed and discrimination still persisted amongst this network.

Though the road may not be often travelled, it has been well envisioned so far.

[1] Second Generation Trafficking is a term used when a child of a woman in sex work is trafficked for sex work purpose.
[2] In terms of condom usage and other roles which they might have to perform to satisfy the customers.
[3] Title: “People Just like You: Don’t Blame it on the Sex Workers”, by Aditya Bastola.
[4] ibid.
[5] Saheli Sangh, BASELINE Report, UNDP – TAHA (Prevention of Trafficking against young girls and women and HIV/AIDS) Project, November 2006.
[6] ibid.
[7]Taken from or Title: “People Just like You: Don’t Blame it on the Sex Workers”, by Aditya Bastola.


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