Kusum (38) is married and supports four ‘children’ — two boys, a girl, and a drunkard husband — with her income as a sex worker. Asked how she got into the profession, Kusum quips: “Kuch naya try karna tha, jisme koi toh khush ho (I wished to try something new that made someone happy).”
While she has been working for the past five years, Kusum says her husband only “kind of” knows. “He knows I work with sex workers, and he’s had to hear a few things from people sometimes. Photo bhi aati hai paper main toh, but mujhe kuch nahin bolte,” she says.
Kusum heads the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), a group of sex workers that assists others with legal rights, health issues and social security across the country.
A 2013 report revealed that over three million sex workers are registered in India. The report, authored by the Dasra Foundation, did not have clear figures for how many of them are trafficking victims and how many entered the profession by choice.
But Dr Samarjit Jana, the chief adviser to Kolkata-based Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society Ltd -- the largest sex workers’ financial institution in Asia -- says the cooperative has only seen a small number of women who begin sex work because of coercion.
“Every year, we intercept 600 odd sex workers in (Kolkata). They are counselled and we do their health tests as well. In our work, we have seen that less than 2% of the sex workers are forced into the trade - in that they came due to someone else’s false promise or drugs. The rest 98% have chosen this profession out of their own choice,” says Dr Jana.
He adds that similar organisations in Mysore and Karnataka have made such observations.
Given these findings, AINSW points out that -- being the main stakeholders in the debate to legalise prostitution – sex workers must be heard before any judgment is passed.
So, Kusum sits in a lawyer’s office wearing gold baubles on her plump arms, gold dangles from her ears and twinkles on the side of her nose. Her dusky pink ‘saree’ is modest with minimal green embroidery.
She’s waiting to sign an affidavit, which will shortly be notarised and likely to be filed before the Supreme Court bench set to hear a PIL for rehabilitation of sex workers by NGO Prajwala on November 19.
In the same matter, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) had earlier filed a report recommending the enlargement of the definition of ‘sex workers’. It had also noted that there should be a distinction drawn between voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims.
Kusum has not yet read the NALSA report, but asks for it. Though, for her, the intervention is about a simple issue. She doesn’t want to spend her life ashamed of her job.
“We don’t believe that children or anyone who has not consented should be in the profession, but at the same time, those who are working as sex workers out of choice should be accepted by the society and be able to live without stigma,” explains Amit Kumar, a national coordinator for the AINSW.
Kumar explains that while there is increasing acceptance of consenting sex workers, they face “administrative problems.”
“When police raid a brothel or a sex worker’s house, they smash everything, they show no respect. Often, they’ve come for one person but they arrest every woman and ruin everyone’s lives,” he says.
Similarly, getting housing and healthcare are common problems for sex workers.
While many NGOs have asked for a ban on prostitution, which has an extremely strong link to trafficking and missing children, the AINSW believes painting every sex worker with a single brush is a mistake.
“This should be treated like any other profession,” says Dr Jana and adds that taking away “the free choice of the women and men who enter the profession often for the betterment of their families would be taking away their agency and ignoring their right to consent to the work they do.”
Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) says that even consent to sex work is often viewed with a “moral lens”, whereas it is often a “crisis decision.”
“There is coercion and there are imperatives. But somewhere in between, there are crisis-centred compulsions that would not fall into coercion. It may not be the best way of living or the best choice but very often, a lot of this is got into to pass a crisis,” says Sivadas.
Kumararamma, who is from Shimoga, worked as a sex worker between 2007 and 2008. She started the work because it brought the money she needed. Like Kusum, she did not hide the fact from her husband or her family, though she adds, “he pretends not to know.”
Her decision came from a practical place, she explains. “With a large family to feed, I needed a job to get enough money to meet basic needs. I started working as a coolie but Rs 20 per day was not enough to feed such a big family. I decided to enter sex work -- it brought me the money I needed. We were in utter poverty. I had very small children. My in-laws, his aunt and her children also lived with us. Till the children were born, we managed somehow. When the number of mouths to feed increased, it was difficult. Sex work seemed to be the only way out.”
“There are work dimensions in domestic work for instance, but there are also criminal dimensions to the activity,” Sivadas points out, while adding that the distinction between the two has been “eluding” the sex workers’ community.
It’s important to separate the two dimensions (of prostitution.) There is a work dimension and there is a trafficking dimension that is a criminal pursuit,” adds Sivadas.
While the Bombay high court recently quashed the ban on dance bars on human rights grounds, whether the Supreme Court will find a balance between the need to curb trafficking and the right to work for Kusum and others like her remains to be seen.