On 2nd June, 1975, hundreds of sex workers occupied the Saint-Nazier church in Lyon, France to protest against harassment by the police, hefty fines levied on them, the arrest of ten sex workers and inhumane working conditions. The plan for a ten-day occupation ended in eight days after the police removed the protesters. However, the movement garnered international attention, and the support of local people, unions and feminist organisations. It gave a boost to the movement. On 7th June 1975, Ulla, the leader of the movement told New York Times journalist Clyde Farnsworth, “We are victims of gross injustice. Prostitution is a product of society, and it cannot be changed by a truncheon.” The protest marked the beginning of the Sex Worker’s Movement globally. Thus, 2nd June is known as the International Sex Workers Day.
In India, the truncheon is not the only thing which hangs over the head of a sex worker. In a society, where consensual, pre-marital relationships are frowned upon, sex work fumes the moral code of a deeply conservative society. Despite all the hypocrisy of chastity and ‘idle‘ imagery of family life, sex workers cater to the needs of hundreds of men per day in the Sonagachi red light of Kolkata, alone. As sex workers cater to these particular needs of society, mostly men and other sexes, they will always exist. But they often are invisibilised as soon as they perform their service.
Trina Talukdar, the Co-Founder of Kranti, says, “Social stigma is our biggest challenge. We have struggled to rent homes for our girls in Mumbai for ten years now. Housing societies don’t want to rent to us, neighbours complain about us, and we are not considered fit to live in “respectable” societies by Residential Welfare Associations (RWAs)“. Kranti works towards empowering girls who are born and raised in Kamathipura red light area in Mumbai. Kranti conducts a host of training programmes, therapy, extracurricular activities, and campaigns to provide these girls with opportunities, education, resources, and a safe place to live.
Despite the efforts of NGOs or CSOs, no change can make the lives of sex workers better until society de-stigmatises their profession. Trina says, “While it is important for sex workers to be able to get documentation so they can access public welfare, their plight will not change until the abolition of the social taboo against them. For example, legally, the daughters of sex workers can be admitted to any school. However, schools do not want to admit them when they find out their mother’s profession. So, only legal changes will not give access to education, healthcare and other basic services to sex workers and their families“. According to a survey by UNAids, in 2016 India had 657,800 sex workers, though the number is likely to be much higher.
The COVID has devastated lives and businesses, small shops, stores, eateries, businesses and the influx of migrants returning home paints a grim picture of the pandemic. It has led to changes in every microcosm of lives, hitting hard on those who are at the fringes of the society; less privileged than us. In the chaos of deaths and stories of poverty and starvation, there is barely any mention of sex workers. They remain ‘invisible’ as their jobs are not legal, which exclude them from benefits received by other legal entities and workers.
The tragedy is sex workers are not even seen as the marginalised section of the society; they are do not exist for the State and its policies or packages. The Prime Minister’s relief package for the poor didn’t include sex workers. Amidst the pandemic, their profession has come to a standstill. Their clientele has disappeared, halting their source of income. Many of them have no access to essentials, such as, food, medicines, soaps and sanitary napkins or to pay for rent and other utility bills. Most of these women live in cramped compounds where hygiene often takes a backseat. These factors make them vulnerable to infection and diseases.
Sandhya Nair, a student, who stays in the NGO Kranti (called as Krantikaris) writes, “Through the lockdown, girls like me living at Kranti and the staffs have distributed groceries for a month to more than 200 families, and we have been cooking and serving freshly prepared meals to over 100 people every day”. She adds that sex workers are like any other daily wage earners but have no safety nets such as subsidised rations through Public Distribution System (PDS). Many of these women in the Kamathipura area suffer from many illnesses and are HIV positive; the lockdown has further closed off the limited health access which they had.
The State has failed them, and hence the onus to provide aid to them has become the sole responsibility of a few NGOs and groups. T.H. Marshall, in his essay, “Citizenship and the Social Class” discusses the benefits and rights that the State bestows on its citizens. It includes lessening the income gap, helping citizens access common culture and experience and live a dignified life and enlargement of those rights and citizenship. The theory is not immune to criticism in academic circles. Yet Marshall’s idea that rights evolve from mere citizenship to civil rights to social rights shows that sex workers are ‘invisible’ citizens with no rights. The legalisation of sex work would be the first step towards extending the scope of citizenship and rights.
Stigmatisation and Notion of the Female Body
Historically, sex is viewed as a ‘sacred’ and private act, although sex as a commodity has always existed. The reason behind the stigmatisation of sex work is due of a particular view of the female body, as objectively existing as a performative body (to be a certain way and act physically in specific manners), and is subjectively constructed and reconstructed through the notions of morality. In her book ‘The Second Sex’ Simone De Beauvoir says that sex work is stigmatised solely because it is a work dominated mostly by women, within a patriarchal society. She is seen as ‘the absolute other’ by the men she serves and by the sexual act she indulges in, for money.
In Beauvoir’s feminist framework, prostitution is an outcome of oppression, but when chosen out of one’s free will and provided with rights and legal protection just like any other workers then it can become like any other profession. Sex work is the outcome of mostly men putting a price on the servicing of sex provided by a woman. Thus, detaching sex from the purview of ethics and morality will lead to the emancipation of sex workers and their service. It will give them the right to choose their life.
However, today an increasing number of men, transgender, LGBTs, etc., are a part of sex workers. It has led to further complications due to an intersection of sexes and class. Sex workers who do not identify with the ‘female sex’, particularly the third gender, face harassment due to the dominant ideas of masculinity. Their certain traits and ‘bodily’ behaviour bring stigma even if we detach them from sex work.
Ray of Hope
Trina further says that, “The youth are definitely more open-minded though, and we have had innumerable young people volunteer and work with us over the years, and have made invaluable contributions to Kranti’s work. Students from Oberoi School, the Maharashtra Forestry Students Organisation have raised funds for us for our COVID relief work with sex workers“. Girls, in organisations, like Kranti, are not waiting for anyone in shining armour to rescue them. They aspire to become agents of change. Trina concludes that “By building leadership within the community to solve their problems, we are subverting the stereotype of an outsider, usually from a higher, class or caste to come in to solve our problems for us and “save” us“.
Along with partner organisations Happy Feet Children’s Home and Aasra Trust, they are aiming for becoming leaders of change. On the eve of International Sex Workers Day, these organisations are busy, this year, by dedicating themselves with relief work for sex workers, affected by the lockdown and social distancing. On this day, we need to remember the brave women who occupied the Saint Nazier church in France in 1975 and those who are struggling in our country fighting for legal recognition of their job and seeking assistance from the State.
Abhinita Mohanty is a Research Scholar at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Madras. You can find her on Twitter.
The article is the result of the inputs provided by Trina Talukdar, the Co-Founder of Kranti and Sandhya Nair, a 21-year old inmate of Kranti who is pursuing her B.A. from Ashoka University and is one of the agents of change. I thank them.
Featured Image Source: APNSW