South Kolkata Hamari Muskan (SKHM) is an NGO working in 2 red light areas of Kolkata – Sonagachi and Bowbazaar. In conversation with SKHM’s director, Srabani Sarkar Neogi, one of our Team Change Leaders, Priyansha, tries to better understand the lived realities of women in commercially exploitative sex work. Who are they? What is their current reality? What structures prevent them from accessing dignity and equity?
Understanding Sex Work in India – An Introduction
“The women are extremely dignified, this line of work is not,” says Srabani di, an inspiring leader who founded the organisation 12 years ago. This view comes across as contrasting with the recent directives by the Supreme Court of India to uphold the dignity of the sex worker, while recognising sex work as a profession. Elaborating further, she says, “There is gross human rights violation in this field, and there is no dignity. If there would be any dignity, every time cameras would pass, why would the women have to hide their faces?”
She further adds, “There are no minimum wages stipulated in this work. For instance, there are 40-year-old women who are standing on the streets, but they are not getting any clients on account of their age. This woman has an old man to take care of at home, and two sick children. She is forced to do group sex with 4 people for a mere sum of Rs. 80. Is this dignified work?”
“Once the doors are shut, the woman loses control over what happens to her, and she loses the right to say no to whatever happens to her. They are beaten, pushed, and worse. They have almost no access to legal recourse. How is this dignified work?” asks Srabani di.
“There are no minimum wages stipulated in this work… She is forced to do group sex with 4 people for a mere sum of Rs. 80. Is this dignified work?”
She explains, “The work is abusive and it causes major health problems, as well as addiction. It is taken up by those who have no other choice. Why should a woman get HIV, UTI, STI? These women too have the right to survive and thrive in a healthy manner.”
Tying this back to the recent conversations around sex work and dignity in the country, she boldly says, “Much can be glorified. It is important to see the darkness and suffering behind this layer of glorification.”
Let us first understand, who are these women?
“The poorest of the poorest women in society are the ones who enter sex work. The reasons for sex work are extreme poverty, lack of literacy, and gender inequality. Majority of the women belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, those whom we refer to as nichoo jaati in Bengali.” explains Srabani di, who has been doing development work in red light districts of West Bengal since 20+ years.
“These women too have the right to survive and thrive in a healthy manner.”
“Their intersectional identities, defined by class and caste forces, along with gender – act against women who enter into sex work.”
“Another way to become a sex worker is through intergenerational prostitution – Devadasis, the Nath community, Agrawalis, and other such communities in India often believe their girls and women are born to serve God, or other religious deities. Young boys are also brought into sex work. There is however a stark difference in numbers gender-wise, with almost 94 out of 100 sex workers being women.”
Viewing Red Light Districts from a Child’s Lens
What does a red light district in India look like?
While explaining children’s troubled relationships with their mothers who are sex workers, Srabani di herself ventures into a description of an average red light district in India.
“It is not like in Europe, where the brothel and homes are in different areas. The mother does sex work in a room roughly 5 feet by 8 feet in size. This room has one chowki (raised platform). The cooking happens underneath this cemented slab, and the child also sleeps underneath it. If the child is a small baby, it sleeps on the same cot as the one where the mother is involved in sexual activity.”
“Sometimes it so happens that the client complains of the child’s crying, but the mother is in need of money, so she feeds the child a little alcohol to quieten it and put it to sleep.”
“The child can see that its mother, in the span of one day, is getting involved in sexual activities with various people. Along with sex, violence and abuse is also heavily normalised for children growing up in red light areas. As an NGO working with children across aspects of education, mental health support, and more, it takes us a long time just to make them realise that what they face is abuse or violence.”
Most women live with ‘fixed clients’ – usually pimps and contractors from the same red light area – who are often macho and violent. There exists a deep emotional void for a lot of the women who live in red light areas, who finally have a man to call their own, somebody who might even father them children. The woman cooks and cares for her fixed client, pays for his alcohol and other addictions, and also pays the sex workers he sleeps around with.
“…it takes us a long time just to make them realise that what they face is abuse or violence.”
In return, the man lends her his identity so she can put sindoor (vermilion) in his name (the marriages are never registered), and grants her children a (temporary) surname.
After two or three years, the man moves on to another woman, and the surnames of the children are changed again.
“What is the sense of identity and belonging that these children grow up with?” Srabani di says, urging us to reimagine red light areas from the lens of children who grow up there.
The children have no birth certificate. It is disturbingly common to find babies wrapped in cloth, abandoned on the streets in red light areas. Some even turn up at Sealdah Station (one of the two major railway stations in the city).
For children growing up in red light areas, their mother is often the only family they have or know. “How are mothers perceived – women who are otherwise loving and going through a lot for the sake of their children? Most children go to sleep around 3 AM, when the quarters are finally free of clients, having waited in the streets or the roofs until then. They miss morning school at 6 as a result, and often enrol for day schooling. Mothers only wake up around noon, after working late nights. Children get their first meal by around 1 PM only. There are high levels of school drop-outs as children get involved in dealing drugs or get-rich-quick schemes.” And thus the cycles of poverty and oppression continue.
“What is the sense of identity and belonging that these children grow up with?”
A Day in the Life of a Commercially Exploited Sex Worker in West Bengal
What are her earnings and expenses?
“In this field, the lower the age, the more money one gets.” Srabani di, whose career is defined by rich experience of working in on-ground NGOs in red light areas even before starting SKHM, explains the rough numbers to us. Before that, let us understand the two models that exist. The first is Chukri, for underage women who are brought into sex work. They are given food thrice a day and two pairs of clothes. They earn no money of their own. They are used by the land/brothel owners until the cost of buying them is recovered and a certain profit is made. After 3-4 years, when the young ones usually turn 16-18 years of age, they are told that they have been set free.”
“Suppose I am she,” explains Srabani di, “This is when I turn to the landlady and ask for a room in the same brothel. With no identity, no money, no contact with family and the real world, not having known any world but this one, I am forced to submit to prostitution once again.”
“For every Rs. 500 from a client, I make a deal to pay the landlady Rs. 250 as rent/commission. This is known as Aadhiya (half-half). With my remaining earnings, I will pay for food, medicine, children’s education and upbringing. I will also sponsor my own liquor addiction without which I cannot serve so many clients in a day. A chunk of my earnings also go towards taking care of my fixed client. Most of us here are in debt.”
In a mediocre red light area like Bowbazar, a woman may earn Rs. 1000 for five clients in a day. The costs could go as high as Rs. 5000 per client in Sonagachi, which is one of the biggest red light areas in Asia. As women age, their value reduces, they earn less and less, with old women barely making enough to survive.
SKHM offers a range of interventions, working with age groups 3 to 65, and providing 11 safe spaces in both areas. With a strong focus on gatekeeping – their vision is to say no to commercially exploitative sex work, and yes to mental health support, sensitization, alternative livelihoods options, and more – they are always on duty, even during the lockdown when the nation came to a halt and forgot about its most marginalised.
“As women age, their value reduces, they earn less and less, with old women barely making enough to survive.”
Summing up our conversation, Srabani di says, “When my feet are bound and I am forced to work, it is slavery. When there is violence and abuse, and I do not have the right to say no, it is slavery.”
She leaves us with some burning questions to think more about. “Why are women’s bodies sexualised? Why should a woman’s body be bought? Only for the pleasure of a man, do we have to buy and sell women’s bodies?”
A lot of patriarchy needs to be undone for us to reach a stage where the most marginalised women can live with dignity and equity. Srabani di frames this almost poetically:
“It is important to listen to the people saying my body, my choice.
It is also important to hear those who say it is my body, I will not let it be violated.
It is important to listen to those who advocate for right to sex work.
It is also important to listen to those who advocate for alternative livelihoods, those who want basic health facilities, and minimum wages.
Listen to those who choose to do sex work. Listen also to those who do not want to enter into forced sex work.”
What We Can Do: The Writer’s Voice
I want to begin by locating my own identity in this context. I am a 26-year old cis-gendered feminist woman from an upper caste, educated background in India. While I work in the development sector, I have not formally studied development or social studies, neither am I a non-profit practitioner in the field of sex work. I had a chance to interact with Srabani Di while researching about West Bengal in 2021, and she opened my eyes to the disturbing reality of our sex workers. This piece is a small step towards making their lives more visible.
The realities of sex workers are not known to us in the mainstream. We have ill-formed opinions based on fiction, because we ensure they remain out of the purview of our ‘moral’ worlds, in spite of sex work being one of the oldest professions in human history. During the pandemic, sex workers were one of the most vulnerable communities, who are still trying to emerge from the losses of the past two years. Various stakeholder groups are accountable to ensure sex workers live a life of dignity which they have been thus far denied, be it government, industries that continue to exploit vulnerable girls and women, or civil society.
At an individual level, you and I can start this movement by simply being more aware. Shedding some of our pre-conceived notions will lead to more empathy, and we will start to include sex workers into our conversations and forums. With greater representation and more attention to their challenges, we can move towards stricter anti-trafficking laws, justice, and greater equity in society.
It must start with us!