Between high rates of HIV/AIDS and punitive new trafficking laws, India’s sex workers are struggling to assert their humanity

Gauri Dobe, a sex worker turned safe-sex advocate, in her one-room apartment in Mumbai, India. Photo taken on 28 December 2018. (Rashi Arora)

Gauri Dobe vividly remembers the last day of her childhood. It was a summer afternoon, and she had just finished devouring some mangoes. As she battled her tears, Gauri’s mother urged her to finish packing her clothes. Gauri’s uncle said he had secured the 15-year-old a job as a nanny which would allow her to help her family financially in the wake of her father’s death. Although teenage Gauri was nervous, she was also excited to leave her village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh for the first time. She was going to work in Mumbai, the ‘city of dreams’. But on arrival, Gauri’s life became a nightmare: her uncle had sold her into sex work.

That was 25 years ago. Today Gauri works in the same place she arrived all those years ago, a brothel in a town called Bhiwandi on the outskirts of Mumbai. Renowned for its textile industry, Bhiwandi houses workshops that employ migrant labourers from India’s poorer states. These men leave their families behind in order to make a living; lonely, they seek the comfort of paid-for-sex.

Bhiwandi’s brothel, situated down a narrow, winding lane clogged with open drains and brightly painted one-room houses, provides work for approximately 600 women. Situated on the fringes of one of the world’s largest cities, this relatively small brothel has launched a social programme that’s had a massive impact on the life of Gauri and others.

Three years ago, Gauri gave up sex work and began working with the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) as a peer educator at the brothel. Teaming up with social workers, her work includes educating women on safe sex practices as well as helping to map and organise HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns for sex workers by collecting data on their use of contraception.

Her pivot from sex worker to safe-sex educator began when she encountered a sexual health and reproductive rights centre run by FPAI called Prajanan Swashthya Kendra(PSK). As a sex worker, she had experienced several incidents where clients refused to wear condoms and had seen many of her peers forced to undergo illegal abortions as a result of falling pregnant.

Incidents of assault were also common: “Not just in the bedroom, where some customers would bring a knife to threaten us if we disagreed to do something,” Gauri explains, “but even out on the streets. We were treated like commodities.”

Although Gauri has no formal education, she always wanted to do something to improve the lives of the women around her, and her popularity amongst her peers helped to build trust between FPAI and the sex workers, who were initially sceptical about working with outsiders, given the constant police raids on the brothel.

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But Gauri doesn’t just speak to the women about sex: “We talk about our families and our distant hometowns. We travel the country through our conversations. We speak about love and our hopes. We too are women of dreams and aspirations, even though society has reduced us to ‘dirty whores’”.

One of the most important aspects of Gauri’s job is spreading awareness about HIV and AIDS. “The use of condoms has gone up 90 per cent in the brothel and I feel proud to have been one of the reasons for it,” she says. “This small act has empowered so many women to exercise their choice and live a better life. Imagine if this could be replicated in brothels across the country,” she says.

According to the global sexual health charity Avert, “India has the third-largest HIV epidemic in the world. In 2017, HIV prevalence among adults (aged 15-49) was an estimated 0.2 per cent. This figure is small compared to most other middle-income countries but because of India’s huge population, this equates to 2.1 million.”

For Dr Lokesh Gable, who works at Bhiwandi with the Maharashtra State Aids Control Society (in cooperation with FPAI), empowering India’s sex workers is important: “Brothels are not just high-risk areas for HIV and AIDS, but [sex workers] are also the most vulnerable to social and economic injustices, with no proper access to healthcare or labour welfare offices. This is why it is important for us to intervene,” she says. “The women require awareness-raising and counselling sessions which are done through behaviour and social change communication. We also provide free HIV tests.”

Double victims of trafficking

According to 2017 figures from UNAIDS there are 657,829 sex workers in India, although the true figure is likely to be much higher as many work under the radar. Although some women choose to sell sex because it is their only means of earning money, the majority of women and girls are victims of trafficking – like Gauri.

Last July, India’s lower house of parliament passed the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection, and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018. Although it aims to protect victims of trafficking, it has been strongly criticised by Indian human rights activists and two UN special rapporteurs for “its focus on addressing trafficking from a criminal law perspective [which] is not sufficiently complemented by a human-rights based and victim-centred approach, and this risks further harming already vulnerable individuals.”

2018 Trafficking in Persons report from the United States Department of State says “there were 15,379 cases of human trafficking (for forced labour followed by sexual exploitation) in India of whom 9,034 victims were below the age of 18.” However, these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as most cases go unreported. Nearly all the victims come from India’s lower socio-economic backgrounds and/or the country’s so-called ‘tribal belt’.

It’s not easy for these women to escape the bondage, or the stigma, attached to sex work. In India, prostitution is widely considered to be immoral. Moreover, patriarchal mindsets see the role of women reduced to that of a homemaker and a child-bearer with no agency of her own. Her prestige is reduced to her virginity.

Annually, the sex trade industry in India generates roughly U$8.4 billion, but the law around sex work in India remains vague. According to the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act of 1956, prostitution is not illegal in India. A woman (the law does not recognise male sex workers) can make money in exchange for sex in private but can be charged for ‘public indecency’ if she conducts her work in public. This ambiguousness puts sex workers at great risk of harassment, violence and bribery, particularly from the police.

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Activists are currently rallying for the decriminalisation of the sex trade in India. But as Medha Dubey, an independent social worker working with sex workers in Maharashtra, tells Equal Times, it is a complicated issue: “While robust anti-trafficking actions are required, so is the decriminalisation of sex work, because some sex workers enter the profession by choice. Some who don’t, continue to stay on, by choice.”

In the meantime, women like Gauri will continue try and find ways to assert their humanity, despite the immense challenges that they face. “We are considered the rotten, dirty apples of society. This country shall never perceive our identities to be beyond that of sex work, even though most of us are here not by choice, but because of our circumstances,” Gauri says sadly.

But still, she continues to play the best hand she can with the cards she has been dealt. “This job gave me a new lease of life,” says Gauri. “I learned that what a woman decides to do with her body, should be her choice. If only others would stop making that decision for us and sexualising our identities, then no uncles would sell off their nieces, and no daughters would be separated from their mothers. And then, perhaps all daughters will be free to climb trees, pluck mangoes and eat them to their heart’s desire.”

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