Indian Sex Workers Tell Stories of Hardship and Poverty

Meet Kalaivani, a Tamil woman with short hair, plump figure and dusky looks, who was trafficked from Chennai to Singapore in 1997, when she was 24 years of age. She was promised a job, but ended up as a sex worker, soliciting customers on the streets to support herself in the island nation. However, she had barely done this for two months, when Singapore police caught Kalaivani and deported her to Chennai. 

In a frank conversation, Kalaivani narrates her true story.

I am from Sivgangai district of Tamil Nadu, and came to Madras to live with my husband, after getting married at the age of 19. He worked in the cine field and life ran smooth for some years. We had two children, a son and a daughter.

Then calamity stuck on our family, my husband passed away, leaving behind huge debts and two young children to be raised up. The responsibilities fell on me, but being a traditional village woman, I did not know what to do. Then one of my husband’s friends suggested me to go to Singapore and work for some time there and that is how I could clear my debts and look after my children.  Having no other go, I exactly did what I was told, just to realize that there was no job for me in Singapore. Those who had brought me there forced me to become commercial sex worker. I was lucky to be deported to Chennai but my woes did not end here as well.

With people, knocking doors asking for money my late husband had borrowed, and the burden of bringing up the two children, willingly, unwillingly, I forced myself into the world’s oldest profession of the world. Even tough, I was able to clear the debts by 2003, but I continued the profession for the sake of my children.

Her son now an engineer and recently got married and her daughter is finishing her graduation in computer science, Kalivani has left the profession for good. She has become a peer educator in HIV/ AIDS promotion programme and running an NGO called Indira Female Peer Education Collection (IFPEC) for the welfare of the commercial sex worker in the Chennai. IFPEC has 2250 members and works for the rights of the sex workers, like, police harassment, old age pension, ration cards, life insurance, old age shelter etc.  

If Kalaivani’s tale is chilling, the story of Baby is no less gripping. Her account is of a girl, whose love failure forced her to choose the fallen path and there was no coming back from there.

Baby was 17, doing her 10th standard in Hyderabad . Her father worked in the railways. A young man who too worked with his father used to visit his house. That is how a girl meets a boy story blossomed and the two lovebirds eloped to Madras. They looked forward to lead a new life working in the cine field. In three months time, Baby became pregnant. When she excitedly told this news to her boyfriend, with whom until now she had a live-in relationship, the man who loved her to the level of madness, one fine morning left her never to return back. Heartbroken, Baby did not know how to negotiate her life.

Life was a nightmare for me, Baby said, dropping her eyes, confirming she is an alcoholic. I had no money; I cannot go back to parents, as they may not accept me being pregnant. Having eloped, I already had damaged their reputation making them the talking point of the entire locality.

At this point of time, I wanted to commit suicide but my neighbor came to my rescue and got me a job, as a house cleaner in the Kodambakam locality, where the tinsel world of Kollywood is located. 

However, I was not making much money and after I delivered the baby and left her in the orphanage, the monetary pressure grew. My neighbor, suggested me to visit some clients and that is how was pushed to the profession of commercial sex worker.

During the 30 years of my career I earned very well, Baby said telling with remorseful eyes. I remember, it was 1973 and my first client gave me Rs 50, and when I left the profession in 2003, someone paid me Rs 1000, Baby said with a smile. I had cleared all the debts of the marriage of my daughter that took place in 2000 and after that there was little meaning for me to continue the profession.

She narrates her experiences how her clients tortured her. They came drunk with the bottle and made me drink as well, Baby said telling the reason how she becomes addicted to alcohol. It was very difficult for me to kick of the habit, and I had to attend a conditioning camp for a month to get over the problem of alcoholism.   Baby, who now drinks occasionally, works as councilor at the Indian Community Welfare Organization (ICWO), an NGO in Chennai, has dedicated her life for the welfare of the sex workers, something she had never to look up to when she was part of the profession.    

Well does someone fall in love with sex workers? If the story of Mary is to be believed, the answer is big yes. Mary hails from Kerala and at the age of 21, she was brought to Chennai to work as house cleaner. She lived in a home that had four girls and three other elderly people, one male two females.

Mary before could realize what was going on in the house where she lived, police raid took place in that house and Marry was arrested along with the other members of the family Mary did not know the house where she lived was not a real house but infact was a brothel.

She was sent to remand house and after 15 days when she came out, the person who had brought her from Kerala, was waiting for her on the gates. He told her, she was sold to him for Rs 25,000 and unless, she clears that off she cannot walk free.

Mary narrates her tale in sobs and tears; I had no other go but to act to the wishes of that pimp. He used to get me the clients or sent me to them. It is during one those meetings with a regular customer, she narrated her story and the customer showed sympathy and took her out of the clutches of the pimp.

It was a fairy tale, he kept me like a queen and we loved each other mad. I always, longed for a family and a home, and when I became pregnant, I was on cloud nine never to realize that this was the undoing, my savoir and my messiah left me for good at the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Life should not give such shock to anyone, Mary said with tears. I had an emotional breakdown several times but I came over them only for the sake of my child. Having, no means of livelihood I had to revert to the profession as sex worker. Now when her son is happily married, leading a life of its own, Mary is brimming with satisfaction. What a successful conclusion to all my trial and tribulation, I live this day to see him happy, says Mary who now works as a volunteer in AIDS control board.

A survey conducted by the Indian Community Welfare Organization (ICWO), the NGO working with sex workers, estimates there are about 6500 sex workers in Chennai city. The survey updates the figures of the World Health Organization (WHO) that had identified 3000 sex workers in Madras in 1993. 

The secretary of the ICWO, AJ Hariharan, who was part of the WHO survey, says the Chennai’s sex industry stands on four pillars — sex workers, clients, brokers and police. It is a chicken and egg syndrome where it is difficult to say who surfaces first in the cycle of sex work, says Hariharan.

According to the survey, the commercial sex workers in Chennai are classifies into four categories; family-based, street-based, brothel-based and mobile sex workers.

There is a fairly well organized and systematic method of recruiting the women into the city’s sex trade. Most are picked up from regular conduit points in the adjoining states at prices ranging from Rs 100,000 to 300,000.

The relationship between the broker and the newly recruited sex worker is governed by a contract. Brokers go periodically to the recruitment points and procure girls on 37-day contracts. The girls are paid 50 percent of the contracted sum up front as an advance while the remaining dues are paid on their return after the completion of the contract.  For those who are set up at brothels, owners provide breakfast and lunch during their stay, while dinners are normally the clients’ responsibility.

Though the sex workers are on contract for 37 days, they eventually end up being paid for only 30 days. Menstruation and travel time are cited as reasons for cutting a week’s salary.

The entire sex industry in Chennai, it is said, flourishes under police protection, something not entirely unbelievable given that many ‘prominent’ middle-men and brokers have been around in this business for quite some time. Owners of brothels that function openly and street sex workers pay a fixed amount of money to the police to avoid arrest and harassment.

Despite the precarious conditions of the work, the sex profession continues to attract a steady stream of girls in Chennai. Most join the profession because of poverty and financial obligations, mainly family debt. Others land into this following failed marriage. In fact, as many as a third of the respondent said they came into the profession because their husbands had left them. Social factors also have a role to play, as is evident from the fact that nine percent say they entered the trade because their lovers had deserted them.

Significantly, the majority of sex worker’s main priority is the child’s future, and more than 75 percent do not want their children to follow their example. More than 30 percent wanted to send their children to boarding schools while 14 percent thought it safer to deposit them with relatives. Tragically, however, more than one fifth are convinced that they will be unable to stop their children from entering the profession.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com