For the group of sex workers on its usual rounds near the Thampanoor Railway Station in Thiruvananthapuram, the night of February 25 appeared no different at first: an altercation with the local autorickshaw drivers opposed to their hanging around in the stand invariably ending in some of the women being bashed up. And the police arriving soon after to lock them up — with their children in some cases — in one of the station rooms.
Normally, their freedom would have depended on the concerned police officer. But this time, no sooner had they been rounded up than fellow workers led by a few social activists, who just two days earlier had formed the Sex Workers’ Forum of Kerala (SWFK) — the first of its kind in the state — gathered before the station demanding that the women be let off. When the police gave in a few hours later, the sex workers’ union saw it as an early triumph in its fight against police atrocities. But when the SWFK hit the headlines the next morning, it sparked off an unprecedented debate on what many construed as an attempt to get sex work legalised in the state.
Surprisingly, among the most vociferous in their protest against the SWFK were women’s organisations. Says Meenakshi Thampan, MLA who heads the pro-CPI Mahila Sanghom: “We fully support the SWFK’s demands to be freed from all kinds of harassment. But attempts to form a union would only give a formal approval for the work these poor women are forced to do.” Women’s groups affiliated to the CPI(M) and the Congress too condemned the move as an effort “to gradually seek legalisation” of sex work. Similar efforts in Maharashtra resulted in the introduction of the Maharashtra Protection of Commercial Sex Workers’ Act in 1994.
On its part, the SWFK maintains that its demands are modest. At a meeting held in the state capital earlier, it accused the state police of treating sex workers like criminals and said all it was fighting for was the “decriminalisation of the profession”. “It’s the police who make our life hell,” explains Selma Joseph, one of the sex workers. “They want sex free of cost but lock us up even when we are out buying medicines for our children.” Another woman went as far as to mention the names of a few local police officers who routinely harass the sex workers.
Taking a leaf out of the sensational manifesto of the Calcutta Sex Workers’ Union released two years ago, the sex workers of Kerala too emphasised not on rehabilitation programmes but the freedom to practise their profession “with respect”. Branded as prostitutes, these women have been struggling to escape social stigma. One of the sex workers, Girija, explains how they are not even allowed to visit their children being rehabilitated by the state Women’s Commission. “Rehabilitation programmes,” argues Maithreyan, one of the social activists behind SWFK, “are based on the belief that all the sex workers need are food and shelter. Unless social rehabilitation is a reality, the existing programmes will not help.”
Many, however, say such social acceptance would result in a dangerous trend, lending glamour to the sad plight of the sex worker. According to state Women’s Commission Chairperson and poetess B. Sugathakumari, “It would eventually lead to the demand for licensing brothels.” Prominent women’s activist and former Naxalite leader K. Ajitha agrees. She says it would import a Thailand-like situation into Kerala, “which is already in the grip of sex rackets and sex tourism”.
Maithreyan calls much of the opposition unwarranted. “We are not for legalising the profession nor licencing brothels. All we are saying is that if a woman wants to be in the business by choice, she should be allowed to and it should be unshackled from issues of morality.”
The SWFK is now planning to meet Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and submit a charter of demands by the sex workers which seeks among other things free education, free medicines, ration cards, bank loans and a decent place to sleep in at night. The sex workers know it will not be easy to get the Government around in the face of stiff opposition. But for the first time in all these years, they are upbeat.