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Part II: Who are these women
As the ICWO volunteers' work with the sex workers progressed, many women started asking the NGO whether they would be able to provide the women with a 'decent' job. That was how Puthiya Paathai came into being, with an intention to rehabilitate sex workers. However, Hariharan knew it was an uphill task to drag these women away from the life of alcohol and sex. But soon ICWO found that some of the older women were willing to start a new life by joining Puthiya Paathai instead of becoming brokers.
"Most of them have physical and emotional problems and even those who are willing to come out or who have come out of the profession are insecure because there is a great demand for young women and there are many young girls willing to take up their position. It is like changing the baton," explained Hariharan.
When seven women showed willingness to come out of the trade, ICWO helped them open tailoring shops, fruit shops, flower shops, etc.
Banu, who was a sex worker, says she is very happy stitching blouses and frocks. Ambika wants to join Puthiya Paathai and lead a decent life but she doesn't know when she will be able to do so. Lakshmi tells herself everyday that she will join Puthiya Paathai soon. "I pray to god to give me the courage to choose a new way," she says.
ICWO also has an organisation called ICS, the only such society in the country for sex workers. The members are sex workers who are 18 and above, and stay within a 60 km radius of Chennai. The 89 members themselves run the society. They enroll in the society by paying a nominal amount of Rs 10 and in the next six months, deposit a fixed amount regularly to be eligible to get a loan that is three times the amount they have deposited. Two other members stand guarantee to the loan.
CHES has rehabilitated more than six women successfully. These women, however, only agree to leave the profession when they understand that men now find them unattractive.
Muthu, a field officer working as a volunteer for CHES, said, "In this male dominated society, it is very difficult for a woman to stay alone. She may be making a living by selling idlis, but at night, men will come and knock at her door. Why? Because she lives alone. So you cannot blame her or an NGO if rehabilitation fails. It is the men who make the lives of women miserable. We may give her a job as a maid in a house. There also, the man of the house goes to pester her. Even though I am a man, I blame the men. The irony is that if hundred women leave their 'jobs' to do something else, there will be more than a hundred in the line to take their place!"
Pointing to the famished Indira, Muthu said, "Just look at her. Ordinarily, any man would give her a fifty rupee note saying, `Paatti (grandma), you look so unwell. Please eat something.' But in this society, there are people who are willing to have sex with her too!"
For the first time in the country, a meeting of commercial sex workers from all over the country was held at Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, in April, and a National Commission for Commercial Sex workers was formed. Most of the women whom we met attended the meeting and they had very strong opinions, demands and expectations from such a commission. But some are pessimistic too.
The ICWO, along with the Society for Development Research and Training Center, will initially help the sex workers run the commission. The commission plans to spread its network throughout the country and arrange for interaction among all women who are in the profession.
Even though Hariharan, whose NGO, ICWO helps the sex workers run the commission, is optimistic about the future of such a commission, neither Dr Manorama nor many of the sex workers who attended the conference are very optimistic. Though Dr Manorama sympathises with the sex workers, she does not accept their demand for legalisation of the sex trade.
"I don't say that prostitution has to legalised and people can have free sex. There has to be a firm law. I am not optimistic or pessimistic about such a commission but what they are talking about is suitable for a place like Mumbai where prostitution is done openly. Here, a majority of the women do not want the whole world to know that they are involved in the trade. They do not like the idea of an ID card," she said.
Hariharan is happy with the existence of a commission and optimistic about its future because, "For the first time, these women are made to feel like a community. We have found that they felt stronger when they came together under one banner. As they are together, they can make representations to the government about their problems. Another area where the commission can step in is in the education of the sex workers' children.
Indira, who had attended the conference, was very angry at the way the policemen harass these "poor women who sell their body to look after their families. They arrest only women because the men who take us with them are highly placed. They are doctors, lawyers, film heroes and ministers' kids! This is unfair, but then the world itself is unfair to us women. They arrest us from the road and in the court, they accuse us of doing something else; that we lure the men by winking and shaking our breasts. We don't do any such thing. When the judge asks us such questions, we too feel ashamed. If we are guilty of prostitution, men are also equally guilty. Why do they punish and ostracise us women alone?"
Whenever these women are caught, they have to give money to the policemen as a bribe and have to pay a fine in court. And they are caught at least once a week! "You people pay taxes only once in a year but we have to pay tax every week. Isn't it unfair? I have been spending around Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 every month for these purposes. Okay, buses, cars and two-wheelers pay road tax. As we stand on the roads to get customers, we are also ready to pay tax but not once a week! They say that what we do is wrong. I don't agree. Men want pleasure and we want money; so both want something. This is a kind of business, you know."
The women also allege that there are some local newspapers and magazines that thrive on stories on prostitution. Reporters of those papers are permanently placed in the court to take pictures of these women and publish them in their papers and magazines A majority of the sex workers have families. The volunteers feel that with one stroke, these magazines destroy the chances of rehabilitating these women.
Indira, Devi, Lakshmi and all the others who were in the room said in unison, "Everybody asks us, are you not ashamed? Have you gone to a court when prostitutes are brought there? You will see good-looking men, in modern and expensive clothes with two or three cell phones talking to people even when they are in the court. They are the people who arrange women for highly placed men. They hold their heads high and behave as if they are doing some big business. Nobody asks them whether they are ashamed or not. Nobody will, because they have money."
According to Muthu, the National Commission can help these women if they can bring the NGOs, the social workers, the media people, the police and the law makers on a platform to rewrite the rules. "If the police is willing to bring the influential men also to court, how many men will have the courage to go to these women? All these men have a standing in society, and they have families too. Why is it that the law is unfavourable to these women alone? If you want to eliminate prostitution from society, you have to check these men too by imposing a hefty fine on them. But you fine only the women. Another thing is, nobody will ever be able to eliminate prostitution from society."
The major complaint sex workers have is against thugs and policemen. They feel an association of all sex workers where there is a doctor and a lawyer to take care of them will solve their woes a little. Some of them even demanded that they be provided with houses, ration card, identity card, etc.
But Devi's personal opinion is that, "Whether you have an association or not, policemen are forced to arrest you as the law asks them to do so. So what can you do? They can reduce the number of times that they catch you. They can reduce the fine from Rs 500 to Rs 200. Can we say that the police should not catch us at all? The law does not permit them to do so. You have to change the law. We should not be caught at all. See, these poor women are making money by selling their body. But is it not dirtier when these policemen and thugs take a share from that? Are they not the dirtiest people in the world? I feel they should be ashamed of themselves to take a share from these poor women. You say prostitution is a matter of shame. But is it not even more shameful when these men grab a portion of that money to buy food for themselves and their families?
"Let me ask you, can anyone stop prostitution? It has been in society for ages. Didn't Jesus Christ talk about it in the Bible? As long as there are men and women, there will be prostitution too. Like Christ said, let those who have not sinned cast the first stone."
Design: Lynette Menezes
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