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A lost innocence

Commercial sex workers are exploited at every step. Their rights are ignored and they undergo worst forms of physical and mental torment. Given a chance, they would like to start a new life, writes SAFIA SIRCAR.


Exploited at every step...

HOW would you describe your relationship with a man? Compare him with a fox, snake, tiger or a monkey? Sandhya does. "The police are like snakes; rowdies stalk us like tigers, while the vendor jumps around like a monkey passing information." Sandhya has experienced the darker side of a man's character.

She belongs to the Dalit community from Andhra Pradesh's Nalgonda district. At 13, she was married. After six months, her husband died of tuberculosis. Then she married again. Five years later, Sandhya's husband left her with two sons and a daughter. She returned to her parents. The scene at home was grim. Her parents were ill, her brothers and her children too small to do the household work. Her meagre earnings could not sustain the family. Often Sandhya would travel into Nalgonda town searching for work.

One day a woman approached her and suggested an alternative source of livelihood. After much hesitation and thought, Sandhya entered the flesh trade. She earns Rs. 150 to Rs. 200 a night. She operates from roadside dhabas along the State highway. She leaves home at 8 p.m. and returns by 6 a.m. Three other women "work" with her and are helped by Seethamma, a broker who arranges the customers and takes 50 per cent of their earnings.

Sandhya suffers physical and mental harassment apart from experiencing shame. Her parents, however miserable, have helplessly accepted her entry into the flesh trade. "Though my family does not go hungry, we have been ostracised in the village." Her three children were refused admission in the village school.

Sandhya comes under the category of commercial sex workers where a woman is duped or enters the profession due to harsh economic reasons. Other groups of women — the Dommaras, Kallavanthulus, Erukullas, Sanis — are into caste-based sex work. A third comprises the Joginis, Devdasis and Vasavis. Girls belonging to the Scheduled Castes, after attaining puberty, are dedicated to local deities. They live as the concubines of the village's influential men for some years before entering commercial sex work.

In fact, Andhra Pradesh has the dubious distinction of topping all States in the trafficking of women, according to a study on inter-state trafficking in a book, Shattered Innocence, by Prajwala, a non-government organisation. The survey reveals that a majority of the women in the age group of 12-35 years in the red-light areas of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa are from A.P.

Further, Shattered Innocence states: the "catchment" areas for the racketeers include almost all the 23 districts spread across coastal Andhra, Rayalaseema and the Telangana regions. Eighty per cent of the victims belong to socially and economically disadvantaged families. Seventy per cent are from backward and drought-prone areas. Eighty-five per cent are illiterate.

The experience of a group of sex-workers rescued from Poona in Cuddapah bares the harsh realities. Brothel owners take away 50 per cent of the earnings. The rest is spent on food, on grooming, on alcohol and gutka, the repayment of debt and bribing the police/local rowdies and family members. Charges per client ranges from Rs. five to Rs. 50. Highway walkers get only paid Rs. 5.

The women are exploited at every step. Their rights ignored. They undergo the worst forms of physical and mental torment. As Anjali from the group revealed, the women are often beaten, burnt with cigarette buts, bitten or their skin slit with a blade.

A report by Action Aid, Andhra Pradesh, points to the formation of groups of exploited women. There are 40 groups with 492 members. Here, women discuss their problems, think of an alternative lifestyle, and support each other. Mehboobi, belonging to a group of 84 members in Qutubullahpur, says: "We are gaining information on legalities to protect ourselves. Most of us do not have housing facilities and live on rented premises. Many of us have no Public Distribution System cards. The government and people should help us instead of shunning us." Mehboobi's husband had deserted her. So, to look after herself and her daughter, she entered the flesh trade. Mehboobi will not allow her daughter to enter the profession.

Eighty per cent of the sex workers spoken to would like to lead a new life if given an opportunity. The remaining 20 per cent cannot think of an alternative lifestyle but definitely want a different life for their children.

Mehboobi now runs a grocery shop and makes a profit of Rs. 50 to Rs. 100 a day. She has taken a shop on rent. A curtain divides the room — the front half is the shop with the other half being the living area. Her daughter goes to school and Mehboobi says with a smile: "I am happy now and no one points a finger at my daughter or makes disparaging remarks."

Jagdeshwari living in Amdalvalasa runs a tea stall near the bus stop. The municipality has allotted her a shop. Her son and daughter attend a learning centre.

Though there are signs of independence and freedom, a lot more needs to be done. Mehboobi asks: "Are we animals without any desires or expectations of our own? Why doesn't society understand that we are humans too and free us from this kind of servitude?"

This series of articles has been brought out by the Press Institute of India as a sequel to the Manual of Reporting on Human Rights in India brought out by the Press Institute with the support of the British Council and the Thomson Foundation of Britain.

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