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Indian sex workers unite against violence and discrimination

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 5 Apr 2011 00:38 GMT
Author: Narayan Aryal
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AHMEDABAD, India (TrustLaw) – Nobody in Jigna Patel’s family knows that she is a sex worker, dealing with clients on the street or selling her body in guest houses to earn money to pay for her two daughters’ education.

The 35-year old HIV-positive sex worker says she has a minimum of three clients per day and earns about 6,000 rupees ($134) per month.

Her husband has no idea where the money is coming from - when Patel returns home at night she says it is coming from casual labour.

“It is not sure that I get a client every day but I stand there until nine o’clock every night,” she told TrustLaw about her work in the streets of this sprawling industrial city of almost 4 million people in the western state of Gujarat.

Sex workers in Ahmedabad face the same problems as their colleagues all over India. Selling sex is not illegal but all related activities, such as soliciting or running a brothel, are punishable with fines or even imprisonment.

This legal paradox has effectively undermined sex workers’ ability to seek legal protection and exposes them to arbitrary violence by clients, pimps and police, human rights campaigners say.

Sex workers say police mete out harassment and abuse regularly, with some of them having been forced into sex acts with police officers after they were arrested.

“Police arrest them from streets, guest houses and residential areas,” said Lata Brahmbhatt, deputy director of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation AIDS Control Society, which provides health care services to sex workers. “Sometimes, police personnel also misbehave and engage in sexual activity with sex workers.”

Even something as innocent as losing a train ticket can cause trouble for a sex worker, as a group of them found when they took a train to attend a workshop in the southern city of Bangalore last month.

When they returned, six of them had lost their train tickets and were arrested by police. Some of them were abused while in jail, according to campaigners.

SEX WORKERS UNITED

The lack of a confined red-light district in Ahmedabad also contributes to safety concerns for sex workers, who are brought in by organised pimps from as far away as Kolkatta.

Geeta Ben entertains her clients at home twice a month when her son and his wife are away, a safer option for the 58-year-old than having to resort to working the streets or even having to resort to conducting business in makeshift tents, an easy target for violence and police raids.

To protect themselves, sex workers have founded Sakhi Jyot Sangathan (SJS), a self-help organisation of around 4,000 members.

The group runs workshops and helps sex workers access health care, which is often a problem because of stigma and discrimination. It also provides support in case of arrest.

“We conduct health awareness programmes for sex workers, which is important in helping to control AIDS,” Ben told TrustLaw.

HIV prevalence in Gujarat is ranked as moderate with at 0.38 percent of the adult population being infected, compared to 0.3 percent for India and more than 1 percent in high-prevalence states such as Andhra Pradesh.

HIV infection rates have been declining due to awareness campaigns but men who buy sex are still the single most significant factor in the spread of the epidemic, according to UNAIDS.

For sex workers like Patel, who contracted HIV nine years ago when a client refused to use a condom, awareness workshops such as the ones conducted by SJS may have come too late.

But she now makes sure that every man who comes to her for business not only knows her status but also uses a condom.

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