Prostitution: their bodies, their rights

August 1, 2012

It is seen as a job no woman would want to do. A job no woman would willingly do.

Yet, spending time in one of Asia’s largest red light districts gives a view of prostitution that jars with what many feminists, gender rights activists and, in fact, society in general believe.

The Sonagachi district – a labyrinth of narrow bustling lanes lined with tea and cigarette stalls, three-storey brothels, and beauty parlours – in the east Indian city of Kolkata raises eyebrows with many who know this place.

It is a place for “fallen women” or “potita” as they say in Bengali, the local language.

Here, heavily made-up women clad in bright saris stand outside dark doorways, leading up narrow staircases into small rooms furnished with just a bed and perhaps a television.

Earning an average of 15,000 rupees ($270) a month, living in often unhygienic conditions and having sex with random men who wander the alleys looking for “love” doesn’t sound like much of a job.

And there is an initial feeling that this kind of life can’t be one of choice.

But some of the women here tell a different story.

“It’s a job, just like any other job,” says 36-year-old Sapna Gayan, one of 12,000 sex workers working in Sonagachi, as she checks the make-up on her face in the tiny mirror of her powder compact in a brothel in the early evening hours.

“I used to be a domestic servant earning next to nothing, working long hours, beaten and even molested by my madam’s husband. This is better,” she tells me.

“No one forced me. No one controls me. I decide which customers and when … there are no pimps, no madams making me do this.”

A sex worker for 15 years, Sapna is also now a vocal campaigner for rights of sex workers with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an Indian collective of 65,000 sex workers.


Sex work is illegal in most countries across the world – largely due to its link with human trafficking, but also due to societal and religious beliefs which see the buying and selling of sex as immoral.

There is an argument, and a valid one, which says sex work encourages human trafficking.

Around 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking at any given time, 80 percent of them sexual slaves, according to the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime.

India sees thousands of young girls being trafficked, including many from Nepal and Bangladesh, forced into bonded sex work unable to escape and return home for years, if at all.

Rural girls from poor families, lured by female traffickers with promises of jobs as maids in the cities, end up locked in unhygienic rooms in flea-pit guesthouses, forced to have sex with many men without any sexual protection.

Anti-trafficking groups say most women do not want to work as prostitutes, adding that they are victims and that they should not be punished by the law and treated as criminals, but rehabilitated and given other options of work.

But they also believe that prostitution should be eradicated and that by punishing the clients, traffickers and brothel owners you will stamp out demand.

But then there are others.

Women like Sapna in Sonagachi and others I met at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival last week who say they have freely chosen sex work and want to continue with it.

You can never end this trade and there will always be demand, they say, adding that decriminalising sex work would regulate the sector, ensure better protection for those trafficked into the industry and bring key freedoms and rights for sex workers.

Most importantly, they say, legalising prostitution would encourage society to respect sex workers as human beings and afford them equal dignity.


These are strong women – mothers to fatherless children, and breadwinners for their poor parents and younger siblings who live in rural areas and are dependent on monthly contributions sent by their daughters.

They have the same aspirations as the rest of us: to earn enough to put their children in good schools and ensure them a promising future, and save a little money to buy land and build a house and have financial security.

Yet even in the most liberal western societies, sex workers are shunned, ostracised and often discriminated against. Not only because it is illegal, but also because society moralises and stands in judgement.

Sex workers tell stories of being thrown out of their homes by their parents, raped by police after being arrested, beaten by clients for refusing to have sex without a condom.

Others talk of having pigs’ urine thrown at them by neighbours or show me cigarette burns on their legs because of police brutality. They speak of their children being denied medical treatment or a place in school because they are born of prostitutes.

“There is this judgemental mindset about sex workers. That they are immoral, that they threaten the traditional structure of the family unit, but this is all nonsense,” says the DMSC’s Samarajit Jana, who has worked with sex workers in Sonagachi for 20 years.

“Just as you use your hand to write stories to provide a service, they use other organs to provide another type of service,” he tells me. “It is about their bodies and their rights.”

Picture caption: Sex workers from Kolkata’s red light district of Sonagachi and others from around the world call for decriminalisation of prostitution, July 24, 2012./ALERTNET/Nita Bhalla


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It is a sad plight of the socitey we live in. The demand always fuels the supply and there is a need to educate these women on the future diseases that would affect them for being in the current industry. A person no matter what profession he/she choses should be treated the same with no bias. Alas this is a dream that wil be made true only through common people. If these women are shown a way of makin gthe same earning without having to subject themselves to this barbarism of selling their bodies, would they still be willing to pursue this profession is a question which sadly begs for an answer. The most basic of necessities when a government fails to provide will lead to these atrocities on women. The Government of India (including the people of this country) failed to provide the basic amenities to the people like security, food, clothing, shelter, honour and education. This failure in turn fuels ingorance, hatred and religious and other biases. The perfect solution for this would be an economicaly dominant society where every person is free to pursue the profession of their choice with the freedom guaranteed by the law of the land to do so and the support of their fellow humanbeings to pursue the same.

Posted by VGanti | Report as abusive

…. and one day the law will be changed… like permission for gay marriages…. society cannot rule human minds for ever… not the least when the state does not have a clue to problems faced by their citizens.. as a young boy i used to live next door to a family where one of the ladies was a known prostitute.. but we had normal neighbourly relationship with her.. even we invited her to attend weddings in our family.. exchange sweets for diwali etc…. let us understand they have a nomal birth like any of us .. and they have chosen this profession to lead a normal life .. they may not believe in marriages and family life… that is their choice …. state cannot force them to marry .. or spend a lifetime without having sex .. the difference is that they collect money.. that should not affect moral pundits.. high sounding moral pundits collect monies to perform last rites after a person dies.. so they collect money for what they feel is a profession.. not duty to society… let us leave them to their profession, as long as they do not interfere with our normal life.. amen

Posted by svs045 | Report as abusive