Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad recently claimed that prostitution had nosedived after demonetisation. The minister seems to have no idea about how prostitution operates today.
The days of brothels and brothel owners are now passé. Fewer male clients are trouping up the narrow steps leading to dingy, ill-lit cubicles that are the hallmark of areas like Delhi’s infamous G.B. Road with its unholy alliance of madams who operate through vicious pimps.
The mobile phone has ‘liberated’ many sex workers from their clutches. Today’s sex worker is more likely to be a married woman who operates from her home or a safe house in a ‘decent’ colony. Women who meet their clients in ‘safe houses’ give a percentage of their earnings to the owners of these pads as rent. Some money is also pocketed as hafta by the local cop who is in the know of these goings on.
Sex workers now operate from literally every part of the Delhi metropolis, as they do in other cities. A trip to Mongolpuri led to an interesting interaction with ten sex workers, all of whom were married. They lived with their husbands and in-laws and almost every woman we spoke to had two to three children. They talked about their work with a sense of pride as the income helps educate their children and keep their families afloat.
Rajni (name changed), a mother of three kids, started her married life working as a domestic. “The fact that I was good looking worked against me. The maalik (owner) of the house began eyeing me, much to my embarrassment. I quit the job and tried my hand working in a factory. I earned Rs 5,000 a month which did not cover the rent and food bills. Then my husband fell ill. He has been ill for the last 15 years. With a 19-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, educational costs are very high. I started doing sex work and presently deal with a few clients only. I go to their homes when they call me. I manage to earn a fair amount of money,” Rajni says.
Amrita is another woman who works out of Mongolpuri. She is very well turned out, with sindoor (vermilion) placed prominently on her forehead. She cannot understand why society should look down on sex workers. “Many men want different women every time they have sex. They come to us for mauj-masti (fun). I have a client who comes all the way from Gurgaon. He must be around 65 years old and is a surgeon. He pays me Rs 10,000 a visit. He carries a bottle of wine with him. Sometimes clients force women to drink. Generally, I do not drink with a client but I make an exception for him and take a few sips of wine,” she says.
“There is so much migration going on in Delhi. Obviously, men are going to look around. Men come to us with a lot of majboori. They have a physical need. And let me tell you, these men are being serviced by women across all age groups. There are 15-16 year-old girls who are struggling for Rs 100-200. In other places, men can get women for even Rs 500. See the number of elderly women out on the streets at night standing outside metro stations and flyovers. They are willing to have sex for as little as Rs 50.”
“The maximum number of men come to Delhi from Haryana because there is an acute shortage of women in Haryana. What do they do? Where do they go? They will naturally come to us,” she adds.
Not all these women have led happy lives. Sunita’s husband was a drug addict. She turned to a local shopkeeper for emotional support and he in turn introduced her to some of his friends. A neighbour, who was a sex worker, helped her into the profession. “She first warned me about the ignominy attached to the profession.” The neighbour was the mother of two married daughters but was in the trade to keep her family afloat. Sunita has now re-married and has a daughter.
Sunita is regarded as being a woman with a heart of gold. She supports her brother, her father and her former husband. None of them know the details of their work and believe she is working in a massage parlour.
Commenting specifically on whether their dhanda (business) had shown a decline following demonetisation, Sunita said with a mischievous laugh, “One of my clients wanted to palm off an old Rs 1,000 note at me. I threw it back on his face and he had no choice but to change it. Men may not have money for food but they will come for sex.”
Life in the cities is expensive and the working class man is usually underpaid and exploited. Women’s access to employment is limited by their gender, and their wages tend to be even lower. Given the government’s unwillingness and inability to implement a decent minimum wage, it is no surprise that women are turning to sex work simply to keep their families afloat.
Women in Mangolpuri have sought the assistance of the Centre for Advocacy and Research’s (CFAR) outreach program, Single Windows, to help them get ration and Aadhaar cards. One of the women, Pushpa, worked as a field co-ordinator with the CFAR in colonies like Budh Vihar, Vijay Vihar, Mongolpuri and Sultanpuri.
Pushpa has been interacting with these women for several years in creating HIV awareness and in ensuring they persuade their clients to use condoms. “Initially, the women did not bother about condoms. But now, most of them insist on it,” she said.
Pushpa, who sat through this interaction, had her own observations which she elaborated on after the women had left. She said, “These women are painting a rosy image of their profession. Their days of struggling are behind them. Many of them have faced violence at the hands of clients and also from their husbands, especially once they come to know about the nature of their wife’s work. Recently, a mother-in-law threw one of these girls out of the house when she came to know about her dhanda. This despite the fact that the house they live in was bought with the daughter-in-law’s earnings. Many of them are subjected to domestic violence because the husband wants her to bring in a certain amount of money every day so he can indulge in his own vices.”
Bharti Ali, co-director with the non-governmental organisation HAQ, works against child trafficking. Ali points out that there has been no discernible decline in prostitution in 2016. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows 918 women being rescued from sex work in 2016 as against 1027 cases in 2015 and 733 cases in 2014 in Delhi.
“Sex workers today are using WhatsApp. It is not possible to track them. Though sometimes, if a woman goes missing, we go to the service provider and they have always helped us. But the law does not allow cops to go into a private home and catch the women so there is nothing the police can do to stop them. My question is that since the entire subsistence of these women and their families depends on them, why take it away? It fetches them money, so they go for it,” said Ali.
Many young, single girls who migrate to the city enter sex work as it is lucrative and enables them to earn well and enjoy a few luxuries. Families back home do not know what work the girls do. It is not uncommon to see such young women lounging about in the city’s poorer neighbourhoods during the day and decking up in the evenings before they step out for the night’s work. They say it is better than working 12-hour shifts in factories.
Sex work gives these women a certain kind of freedom. They are economically empowered. This is why many sex workers around the country have collectivised and formed groups to lobby for their rights. Veshya AIDS Muqabla Parishad (VAMP), founded in 1997 in Maharashtra’s Sangli, is a collective of over 5,000 sex workers who do not hesitate to speak out against the moral opprobrium thrown at them. In Anantapur and Chennai, sex workers are so well organised that they are helping the police in fighting crime. Most of these women, despite their adverse circumstances, believe they are capable of determining their own destinies and are willing to fight against the abuse and violence which has come to mark their lot. It is these nuances which law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad seems completely unaware of.
Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.