Sex trade in Chandigarh thrives in the shadow of poverty in the colonies on the periphery.(Anil Dayal/HT)
Sex trade in Chandigarh thrives in the shadow of poverty in the colonies on the periphery.(Anil Dayal/HT)

Ugly truth of sex trade in ‘City Beautiful’: Chandigarh’s dark underbelly

With 3,100 registered commercial sex workers, the City Beautiful has an ugly underbelly, which reeks of poverty and exploitation
By Tanbir Dhaliwal | Hindustan Times, Chandigarh, Chandigarh
UPDATED ON AUG 05, 2017 10:16 PM IST

3100. That is the number of registered commercial sex workers (CSWs) with the State AIDS Control Society in Chandigarh. Officials say the number of unregistered sex workers could be much higher, and chances of their indulging in “unsafe” sex work is also very high.

New sex workers registered in past one year

Female sex workers: 135

Male having sex with men: 155

Transgender: 6

Dr Vanita Gupta, director, State AIDS Control Society (SACS), says at over 3,000 the number of female sex workers might seem enormous for a city like Chandigarh, but these women are not into brothel-based sex work. “Most of them are housewives who undertake sex work, whenever they need money.” Dr Gupta said they plan to screen every female sex worker for cervical cancer in the next two months as they are at a high risk. “The proposal has already​ been approved by the home secretary,” she added.

Also Read | The heartbreaking, untold stories of sex workers in Chandigarh

Dr Sandeep Mittal, deputy director of SACS, said they have also launched a drive to enroll new entrants to sex trade. “People are more prone to HIV in their first few years of sex work as they are not confident enough to negotiate condom usage. Since risky sexual encounters are more frequent in the initial years, our focus is on enrolling them in the early years,” says Dr Mittal.

The Chandigarh SACS, which started a count of new sex workers from 2015-16 , has found 135 new female sex workers (FSWs), 155 new men having sex with men (MSMs), and six new transgenders (TGs).

Victims of abuse

Slums and colonies on the periphery of Chandigarh are the epicentre of sex trade in the city. Most of the sex workers are housewives, who have been either pushed into the trade by their family or abandoned by their husbands after which they took up this work to fend for their children. HT found several commonalities among the CSWs it interviewed. Most of them were illiterate, poor, unskilled, had a strained childhood, and were victims of domestic violence. Counselor Sushma Kumari, who has been working in this field for several years, says she comes across many sex workers who have been tortured by their husbands for money. “They choose this trade because they have to look after their children.”

But it’s a choice fraught with risk. The CSWs are often beaten up and even robbed of their money as they cannot complain to the police. “Sex work is illegal in India. Where do we go?” asks a sex worker.

The last recourse

For most, it’s the last recourse. Anita (name changed), a housewife who turned to sex work after being thrown out of the house by her husband, says, “It’s not that I did not try working as a labourer, but the earnings were so meagre that I was not able to fulfill the basic needs of life.” Another sex worker, Babita (name changed), agrees that it’s the money that lures many of them. “We get respect when we start earning. The financial independence empowers us and improves our position in the house.”

Claiming that she has no shame in accepting that she is a sex worker, Babita says, “This profession has given me the money with which I have raised my two children. At least I am not a beggar.”

Flirting with Aids

While the money may be the big draw, commercial sex work entails a heavy tradeoff. Dr Sandeep Mittal spells it out when he says, “Female sex workers, men having sex with men, transgenders, many truckers, and migrant labourers are at a high risk of contracting HIV and AIDS.” It was in 2007 that a separate target intervention programme was started for this core high-risk population.

But since prostitution is illegal in India, getting CSWs to seek help from the AIDS control society is a major challenge, say SACS officials. Several NGOs in the city have come forward to plug this gap. At present, the society has roped in seven NGOs who work for sex workers at the community level. “While four of these NGOs are working with female sex workers, two work with MSMs and one with all the categories,” explains Dr Mittal.

NGOs to the rescue

But getting sex workers to take any help from the AIDS control society is not easy. No one knows it better than Manju Bala, a project manager with Yuvsatta NGO. “It is not easy to convince a sex worker in the first go. They abuse us, yell at us and ask us to leave. It takes a lot of patience and help of peer educators to counsel these new workers and enroll them in the programme,” says Manju.

Existing sex-workers (approximate)

Female sex workers: 3,000

Men having sex with men: 2,000

Transgender: 100

It’s due to the sensitive nature of this work that every NGO has a dedicated project manager, outreach worker, and a peer educator, who is generally a former sex worker. These educators go to the hot spots and educate other sex workers about safe sex. The sex workers are taught how to negotiate condom usage with their clients besides being informed about safe-sex practices, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.

Apart from this, they are provided medical services, which include HIV tests after every six months and complete health checkup after every three months in which they are screened for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cervix cancer. The NGOs have divided the vulnerable areas amongst themselves. Yuvsatta, for instance, is looking after 639 FSWs from four areas, namely, Bapu Dham, Daria, Colony No 4 and Manimajra.

It is not surprising that almost all sex workers keep their work a secret from their children, many of whom are now being looked after by NGOs, which give them coaching besides involving them in extra-curricular activities.

For many of these NGO workers, who have interacted closely with sex workers, tending to their children has become a labour of love. As Manju, a postgraduate in business administration, puts it, “While people look down upon them, we know what these women have gone through. We are aware of their helplessness, their desperation to earn money for their families. The loud makeup and bright smiles hide shocking stories of exploitation.”

Face to face with SSP Eish Singhal

Q: Is there any helpline for people forced into sex trade or to help sex workers who often becomes victim of violence?

A: There is a helpline number 0172-2700448 of the women police station, but victims of violence mostly call on 100. Policemen from the police station concerned take action as per the law.

Q: Many female sex workers have said that policemen are involved in sex trade. They said it’s because of this that that they don’t approach police for protection.

A: We haven’t received any such information or complaint so far. Give me their names, we will take disciplinary action.

Q: How many raids have been conducted by the police to bust flesh trade rackets? Have they made any arrests?

A: Concerned police stations conduct raids under immoral trafficking act. One FIR was registered in June under Sections 4,5,7, and 8 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act in police station, Sector 36.

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