Where are the sex workers in the rape law debate?

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Nowhere to go Sex workers have to deal with violent customers and an apathetic police force, Photo: Getty Images

ON 23 JANUARY,following the gangrape and death of a 23-year-old girl in New Delhi, the Justice JS Verma Commission came up with a set of recommendations for the protection of women and improving law and order in the country.  The landmark report addressed, among other things, the issue of police reforms and sexual crimes against women, transgenders, gays, lesbians and women in prostitution.

However, the larger debate on rape has continued to ignore the most vulnerable section of society: the sex workers. According to NGOs fighting against trafficking of women, over 90 percent of prostitutes in India face rape and sexual violence. None of them have legal recourse, as the general mindset is that “prostitutes cannot be raped”. Even the judiciary writes them off as “women of loose morals”.

Take for instance, Meena, a woman in her early 20s, who managed to escape her brothel in Bihar in early 2009. However, Meena’s freedom came at a heavy price. She was forced to leave her 12-year-old daughter Naina behind, as she was being held hostage by the brothel owner. When she returned to free her daughter with the support of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a group working for the rights of sex workers, she was shocked to find the system was working against her.

“Strangely the local judge wanted to send Naina back to the brothel, because when the police questioned her, she addressed the pimp as papa,” says Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap. The judge felt that Meena was a “bad woman” and the pimp “cared for her”.

From forced sex to cigarette burns on their bodies to foreign objects being shoved inside their vaginas, sex workers of India have to endure a cycle of physical and mental humiliation over and over again. This cycle starts as early as the age of nine in some cases. Young girls, who are either picked up or sold by their families on the promise of lucrative jobs or marriages, are pushed into the flesh trade from which they have no way out. Resistance equals starvation, being beaten, forced to take liquor and drugs. This is all part of the “seasoning” that brothel owners put girls through, the idea being to break their spirits and any hope of escape. Girls are also taught to call their madams muma (mother) or masi (aunt) and the pimps papa or mama (uncle).

“Almost all sex workers I know have faced violence,” says Sushmita, a sex worker in west Delhi. Sushmita cites the example of Deepshikha, who was working the streets at night and had set up a deal with a group of six men. “Throughout the night, they took turns sleeping with her, but refused to pay in the morning. When she protested, they beat her, strangled her, robbed her of her jewellery and slashed her throat. Isn’t this also gangrape?”

When asked why they didn’t take the matter up with the local police, Sushmita and the other women just laugh it off. “What will the police do?” she says. “They will only harass us or threaten to shut us down, demanding money or sexual favours. In fact, there are girls who have been taken to jail and raped by the police. It is best to stay clear of them.”

Since prostitution is illegal, the police collect hafta (bribe) from women working the streets as well as pimps, madams and brothel owners. The police’s blind eye ensures any route of legal recourse is effectively cut off.

“Brothel owners have worked out an arrangement with the police,” says Pia, 30, another sex worker. “If a girl runs away from the brothel, she is picked up by the police and returned to the brothel, usually after they have had their way with her.”

IN FACT, the police also exploit the stigma attached to prostitution. “Many sex workers in this area (west Delhi) are married or live with their families,” says Sushmita. “We leave in the morning, work during the day and return by the evening. We don’t want our families to find out what we do. So we put up with violence from clients, police harassment and injustice.”

Others bear testimony to this. A 24-year-old client relates his experience. “The police barged into the room when I was with a girl and began to beat us,” says Mohd Saif, son of a prominent local businessman in west Delhi. “I would have paid the cop Rs 10,000 had he demanded it. I could not let my father find out, but I got off paying only Rs 200.”

Sex workers aren’t so lucky. Take for instance Charu, a sex worker in her forties. Besides servicing customers herself, Charu also lets out her rooms to other girls to use. One day, local beat cops came to her house, caught the clients and shaved their heads. They demanded that Charu pay them Rs 22,000 a month if she wanted to continue working. Today, Charu pays more than 50 percent of her earnings to the police in return for non-interference.

Police trouble aside, sexual violence is the issue that is of a bigger concern to these women. Customers feel since they are paying, they are entitled to do anything, even if it causes injury to the woman.

The case of Kim Mara, a girl trafficked from Nepal to Kolkata, is particularly heart-rending. Kim had to go to the doctor five times to have her vagina stitched back together, because the same abusive customer would come back for her and leave her torn up.

Oddly enough, many women consider violence a part of sex. Ruchira had met with sex workers of Prem Nagar Basti behind the Delhi Airport. “When we interviewed the women, they said they had faced no violence. When we asked if they had been slapped, they said yes. Kicked? Yes. When we probed further, we found that in a community of 72 women, on an average, there were two fractures a month from sex-related violence,” she says.

Women didn’t consider it violence because they were being paid, so they figured that the men had the right to do whatever they want with them. “Prostitution is not a choice; it is the lack of choice,” explains Ruchira. “The women cannot choose their clients. A woman’s body has to be ready for sex. In these cases, their bodies are not ready, so it amounts to rape, similar to marital rape.”

In her mid-twenties, Rashmi, a BCom graduate from Delhi University, has been working as a sex worker for over a year to pay off the Rs 15 lakh loan her husband had taken. “I was unaware of his debt when we got married,” says Rashmi, whose husband lives in London. “I have to pay it off so he can come back.”

Rashmi used to work at a ticketing firm and made Rs 30,000 a month, but she needed more. Because of her age and looks, she usually manages to earn Rs 1,000 ‘a shot’ (per ejaculation). After paying off the cops, the house owner and her husband’s debt (Rs 40,000 a month), she barely saves enough to live. “I get so angry when I see the clients’ faces. Some are ugly, some are dirty, some are sick. I just don’t want to do this, but I am stuck.”

RASHMI’S CASE is telling. Most women pushed into prostitution have a similar tale of an existence marked by pain and exploitation, with no recourse to the law.

Former West Bengal public prosecutor Taj Mohammed, who now fights for the rights of sex workers, calls prostitution a form of rape. “The law implies, any sexual act without the consent or against the will of a woman, or even if consent is obtained otherwise, through coercion or circumstance, is rape,” he explains. “India has signed and ratified the UN protocol to end trafficking in persons, especially women and children, which states that ‘consent is irrelevant if there has been abuse of position of vulnerability’ and vulnerability implies death, bondage, gender, caste, class, illiteracy, domestic violence, etc.”

While Mohamed’s explanation does throw light once more on the oft-discussed sociological compulsions that drive women to the flesh trade, the one undeniable truth that emerges out of all this is is that among women facing abuse, sex workers are lesser equals. They are “women who had it coming”, who “have no rights because they live outside the law”. While legalisation may not be the option to curbing trafficking, as has been witnessed in Las Vegas and Amsterdam, something needs to be done at a legal, social and systemic level. The laws need to target the pimp and the client, not the women. Police reform needs to be brought in and the mindset of sexual domination needs to be chipped away at.

Until that happens, a new Kim or Rashmi will be raped every day.

Avalok Langer is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
avalok@tehelka.com