Sex workers in Maharashtra march in large numbers to decry the harassment and slur meted out to them at the hands of the police

Over 500 people representing a spectrum of progressive groups — women's organisations, Dalit activists, sex workers' collectives — recently took to the streets in Satara, a western Maharashtra district, to express solidarity with women in prostitution struggling to be heard against police atrocities faced by them. Condemning police harassment of local sex workers, the activists sought justice for Anu Mokal, who suffered a miscarriage due to police beating.

In this unique demonstration of solidarity, children of sex workers were in the forefront of the rally. “The Satara police have violated the rights of sex workers, both as individuals and as mothers,” stated Raju Naik, president of MITRA — a collective of the children of sex workers. He himself is the son of a sex worker. “This march is led by children to affirm our strong relationship with our mothers.”

The day of the march coincided with the International Mother's Day on May 14 in the most telling way. There was large-scale participation of sex workers associated with Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP) — MITRA's mother outfit — from Satara and nearby districts. Their enthusiastic sloganeering upholding “sex workers' rights as human rights” and their forthright appeal to “stop policing our morals” left the onlookers amused. The Anu Mokal case has already received wide media coverage locally.

Saheli, a sex workers' collective from Pune, also joined in along with women's rights groups from Pune, Mumbai, Sangli and Satara. Dalit activists and media persons who have consistently supported VAMP's endeavours to ensure justice for Anu Mokal joined the demand.

Anu Mokal, who participated along with her two young daughters, shared the course of events. The incident took place on April 2, when a team of Satara police led by a senior inspector accused Anu and her friend Anjana Ghadge of soliciting though they were actually on their way to deliver dinner to a friend admitted in the Civil Hospital. Their explanation fell on deaf ears, with both being allegedly abused and beat up. Four-month-pregnant Anu's pleas to spare her went unanswered. Both were arrested and eventually released on April 3. Anu suffered a miscarriage on April 5. When their attempts to lodge a complaint did not yield much, Anu along with VAMP activists called a press conference on April 17.

The police dismissed the allegations and claimed the incident to be a part of their routine inspection to check soliciting in public places. Anu, however, feels being a sex worker she is not taken seriously and was even told that sex workers cannot be mothers. Most sex workers participating in the march shared Anu's feelings. VAMP activists Sangeeta Udugade and Durga Pujari said that the reaction would have been stronger had the incident happened with a woman other than a sex worker. “Married women carry the family heir in their womb, so their pregnancy is considered sacred, but ours is insignificant since we fall in the ‘bad women' category.”

But the miscarriage should be seen as part of a continuum of violations, asserted Manisha Gupte, founder of Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsha Mandal (MASUM). Agreeing that the miscarriage compounds the intensity of violations against Anu, Ms. Gupte maintained, “Even if it is just beating, it is condemnable. Sex work per se is not illegal and the police have no right to beat sex workers.”

Given the social distance and power differentials between a senior police officer and a street-walking sex worker, the latter has lesser chances of a fair hearing, stated Ms. Gupte. “We have no faith in the Satara police,” stated Meena Seshu on behalf of VAMP and Sangram, who led the delegation to the Resident District Collector. She asked for an inquiry by an independent State agency and suspension of the inspector till its completion.

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