Meet the Sex Workers Leading the Fight Against Human Trafficking and Child Marriage 

Rescuing young girls with the help of legal authorities has helped them change people's attitudes and develop a sense of self-worth.

In 2017, these women helped arrest over 200 traffickers in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

In 2017, these women helped arrest over 200 traffickers in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Hyderabad: Sex workers in the districts of Anantapur, Kadiri, East Godavari and Belagavi in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are often married off at a young age or trafficked to larger cities.

Statistics released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have put Andhra Pradesh at second, after West Bengal, in terms of the prevalence of human trafficking. A large number of minor girls are being trafficked and UNODC states that in January alone, 939 minor girls were reported missing.

Many of the women who have been victims of trafficking or child marriage are now working closely with legal authorities and the police to help put an end to the two.

Their success in this endeavour can be gauged from the fact that in the last few years they have identified and helped arrest over 200 traffickers in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Many of these traffickers were trafficking young girls of about ten or 12. In order to ensure these rescued girls do not come to harm, the sex workers helped get them admitted into residential Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalayas. These are free schools being run by the state government in every mandal of Andhra Pradesh.

How has this incredible turnaround taken place? How have these women picked up the grit to challenge those very people who had been at the forefront of exploiting them for years on end?

These women best describe their journey.


Take the case of Rajeshwari from Kadiri in Andhra Pradesh, who has been engaged in sex work for the last two decades. A three-day workshop in 2015 by the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) was a turning point in her life. There she received training on different laws including Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POSCO), the Nirbhaya Act and the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act by a retired judge and his team of lawyers. She was also taught how to cope with sexual violence and sexual harassment.

These women also received training on becoming paralegal volunteers. The minimum requirement is clearing the matriculation examination (class ten). Rajeshwari was a class four drop out. An exception was made for her and the other sex workers who had participated in this workshop.

“We were given a crash course on different laws including POSCO, Nirbhaya law and the JJ Act. We were also taught how to deal with cases of domestic violence and marital discord and in cases of trafficking and child marriage, we had to inform the district authorities by using the child helpline. In fact, we are paid Rs 250 for every case that we report,” said Rajeshwari.

The workshop gave her enough confidence to start working closely with the police and district authorities. “Being a sex worker, I know the situation on the ground. When a young girl was sold by a trafficker in Bhiwandi in the Thane district of Maharashtra, the local police and some NGOs sought my help,” said Rajeshwari with a sense of pride.

“I was actually taken all the way to Bhiwandi to help bring the girl back and restore her to her parents who live in Kadiri. The local agents here threatened to kill me. When they see me, they abuse me to my face. But now that I am a member of Jan Jagarata (JJ), a local community-based organsiation (CBO), I enjoy a great deal of support,” she said.

She cites the example of another young girl who was trafficked to Mumbai for a sum of Rs 2.5 lakh. “The madam put her to work and had 20 men arriving to have sex with her every day. We got the girl rescued and put her into a school in Hyderabad. The trafficker who took the girl to Mumbai has been arrested and is housed in the jail in Anantapur while another fellow is presently in the Kadapa jail,” said Rajeshwari.

Rajeshwari’s own life bears a startling similarity with the girls she helps rescue. Giving broad details of her life, Rajeshwari said: “When I was in my early 20s, I was taken to Dubai under the pretext of doing domestic work. After three years of sexual exploitation, I sought police protection. The police did not help me. Rather, they too exploited me and shamelessly used me for two years. It was only with the help of a local agent that I was able to return to India.”


Mahalaxmi from Gooty village, who is presently the treasurer for the CBO Ushodaya being run in the neighbouring city of Kalyandurg, cites how a minor girl was kidnapped by three local boys in her area.

After raping her for three days, these boys abandoned her outside her parents’ home in the dead of night. The parents had four marriageable daughters and felt that by taking their eldest child back, they would suffer disrepute in their village and thus were reluctant to take her back.

They had the good sense to seek the help of Mahalaxmi, who insisted they go to the police station and file a complaint against the three boys.

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The police tried to misguide the parents and refused to lodge an FIR. Mahalaxmi warned them that in case they did not file an FIR, she would seek the help of the district child protection officer since the girl was only 14, a minor.

When the local cop failed to heed her warning, Mahalaxmi rang up the sub-inspector, warning him that if action was not taken, she would take the matter up with the State Child Rights Commission.

Mahalaxmi said: “The cop got scared and an FIR was registered. The girl was taken for examination to the local government hospital where the rape was confirmed and all three boys have been arrested and jailed.”

Fearing for the girl’s life once the boys were released on bail, the rape victim has been sent to Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya in Hyderabad where she is presently continuing her studies.


Usha, the manager of Ushodaya, who had been engaged in sex work for over a decade, also admits that participating in the legal workshop in Hyderabad provided a new direction to her life.

“It helped me develop a sense of confidence. I also understood for the first time that if I am subject to violence, I can turn to the police and the district machinery for help. Nowadays, we meet the police and the district legal authorities on a regular basis. When the district judge goes to visit a jail, he takes a group of us paralegal volunteers along. This has led the local community to change their attitude towards us. More importantly, we have developed a sense of self-worth,” added Usha.

Recently, Usha was informed of how a mother, a former devadasi, had pulled her two daughters out of the local school because she wanted them to be initiated into the same trade.

“A group of us complained to the police. The district child protection unit intervened and the girls have been put into the SOS school in Tirupati to grow up in a more protected and nurturing environment,” said Usha.

How Jan Jagarata was formed

In 2007, the sex workers in Kadiri felt they needed to start their own NGO and that is how JJ came about. Initially, it provided basic HIV/AIDS services to these women. But they soon realised HIV/AIDS was just one of the problems they were facing. Equally pressing were issues of social stigma, discrimination and problems of violence by the hands of clients and partners.

In 2011, after having lengthy interactions with several local NGOs including REDS and CFAR, they picked up enough confidence to get JJ registered.

“Now we have hired two rooms in Kadiri where we have set up an office. We meet every week with a special focus on health. We also hold annual general body meetings to elect a president, secretary and a seven-member board of directors,” said Rama Devi, an office bearer.

But registering their organisation has resulted in other spin off. Members of their organisations are now in a position to access government loans to start their own business. And most importantly, they do not have to offer any collateral for these loans. Their membership in JJ is enough.

Ease in getting loans

Another important initiative these women have taken is to undertake an informal survey of the number of sex workers in and around their district. This helps them provide assistance to someone who is needy and also to keep an eye on anti-social elements.

Adi Narayan amma took a loan of Rs 10,000 two years ago and bought ten sheep with that money. “These have now multiplied to 20. I have succeeded in repaying my first loan. I hope to get a second loan so I can expand my business,” she said.

Another JJ member, Sailaji, received a small amount of money to start a small department store selling groceries and cigarettes from which she earns Rs 7,000 a month.

“My position is now much more secure and I do not have to do sex work anymore,” said Sailaja.

Renuka amma was deserted by her husband at a young age. “I had to bring up my daughter on my own. When my daughter was 16-years-old, she ran away with a man. After having three daughters, she came to my house, left her girls with me and disappeared. I subsequently learnt she was abandoned by her husband. I gave one daughter each to my two sisters and brought up one girl myself. I approached the Single Windows and they helped get my granddaughter admitted to Prajwala Home. Ten years later, my daughter returned because her partner deserted her.”

“Meanwhile, I took a loan of Rs 30,000 to start a business but have used the money on spinal surgery. I take solace in the fact that at least my granddaughter has settled well in her school and is a good student,” she added.

Muni amma was also married off at a young age and is the mother of three children. She worked for several years as a daily labourer but did not earn enough, so she took to sex work to earn additional money.

“Leaving my three children with my in-laws, I was taken to Mumbai to do sex work but the conditions there were miserable. I was not given proper food to eat, even the water to drink was filthy. I got a truck driver to bring me back to Kadiri,” she recalled.

Muni amma also received a loan of Rs 15,000 but has spent the money on her treatment. While she has succeeded in getting two of her children educated, her youngest daughter is studying in college. “I am working hard to stop child marriages in my district and in the last two months have succeeded in stopping six such marriages,” she said.

Legal empowerment

Padmaja been working as lawyer in the district court in Anantapur for the last nine years. She is one of the lawyers appointed by the state government to teach these sex workers paralegal work.

“Our attempt has been to take these women out of this profession and you can do this only if you empower them legally. We also try and ensure they get support of the district legal authority. Now that they are empowered, we have sought their help in fighting cases of trafficking,” said Padmaja.

Rammohan Reddy is another senior lawyer working in Kadiri who is in the forefront of helping these women. “These women tell us we want our children to study and not lead the kind of lives we have led. The state government has opened 25 schools for girls of sex workers and we assist them in getting their girls admitted there. Of course this has created a situation where traffickers are very angry and these women are constantly being threatened by them,” said Reddy.

These women are targeting other social evils as well. Adolescent girls are forced into marriage (often at the instigation of their mothers) to their maternal uncles. Renuka amma cited her own example. She is a widow with two daughters. One morning, her maternal cousin arrived at her place and forcibly wanted to take her 14-year-old daughter who is a class VII  student to get her married to his son. If the mother dared refuse, he warned he would kidnap the girl.

She phoned the Ushodaya team who immediately took her daughter under their protection. They informed the child services and the district child protection officer. The girl has been transferred to a residential school while the cousin was let off with a warning from the police.

Another Ushodaya member, Lalita amma, was married off to her maternal uncle when she was only 13. She is now assisting a campaign launched by several NGOs to stop marriages between blood relatives.

Akhila Sivdas, executive director of CFAR, started the Single Window initiative in 2013 to provide basic services to these women. Although the initiative has now come to an end, CFAR continues to provide guidance to these women. Sivdas said, “They are playing an important part in community policing. They understand the social dimensions of these issues and also provide community support. In many ways, these women are operating like mohalla committees.”

More and more parents are turning to them for support. Recently, in Kotter village in Anantapur district, a boy cheated on a girl and she became pregnant and has delivered a baby boy. The boy’s parents have agreed to have their son undergo a DNA test. If child is fathered by their son, they will get the couple to tie the knot. This entire process is being supervised by the court.

The struggle continues.

Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.

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