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Searching for justice for body and self in a coercive environment: sex work in Kerala, India.

Abstract: Sex workers in Kerala, India, live in a coercive environment and face violence from the police and criminals, lack of shelter, lack of childcare support and have many physical and mental health problems. This paper documents the environment in which women have been selling sex in Kerala since 1995, and their efforts to claim their rights. It is based on sex workers' own reports and experiences, a situation analysis and a needs assessment study by the Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health. Involvement in HIV/AIDS prevention projects first gave sex workers in Kerala an opportunity to come together. Some have become peer educators and distribute condoms but they continue to be harassed by police. Most anti-trafficking interventions, including rescue and rehabilitation, either criminolise or victimise sex workers, and sex workers reject them as a solution to sex work. They understand that the lack of sexual fulfillment in other relationships and their own lack of access to other work and resources are the reasons why commercial sex flourishes. Sex workers are not mere victims without agency. They have a right to bodily integrity, pleasure, livelihood, self-determination and a safe working environment. Sex workers are organising themselves for these objectives and demand decriminalisation of sex work.

Keywords: sex work, sexual rights, trafficking in women, HIV/AIDS, violence against women, India


THERE are no visible brothels in Kerala state in India, but commercial sexual activity goes on in a number of places. There is also very little documented information on the conditions in which sex workers live and work. This paper is an attempt to document the environment* in which women have been selling sex in Kerala since 1995, and their efforts to claim their fights. It is based on their own reports and experiences, gathered by the Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health (FIRM), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works among stigmatised and marginalised groups in Thiruvananthapuram, a city in Kerala. The information comes from a situation analysis done in relation to HIV/AIDS prevention projects with sex workers initiated in Kerala after 1995; the report of a needs assessment study done by FIRM during 1997-98; daily reports by sex workers and staff filed at FIRM from drop-in centres for sex workers in Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur from 1999 to 2001; and ease histories recorded in the clinics conducted in the drop-in centres, also from 1999 to 2001.

On the street: the sex work environment

Based on sex workers's own reports, there are three categories of sex workers in Kerala. The first are street sex workers who are homeless and who solicit in the street, work at the roadside or in lodges, and live and even sleep at the roadside without shelter from sun or rain, always a hazardous environment. The second are sex workers who have their own homes and work in hotels or lodges; they also solicit in the street and take their clients to lodges, or find clients through arrangements with lodge owners. The third are called "family girls" who entertain clients in their own homes with or without the help of agents.

Most street sex workers come from poor families; lodge-based sex workers and family girls more often come from the middle or upper class. The factors which lead women into this occupation are complex, and include poverty, the gendered division of labour, exploitation and trafficking, and a history of abuse and sexual control, all of which are well known. More than 50% of sex workers in Kerala had been married and experienced domestic violence, desertion by their husbands, being sold by their husbands or having their property seized by their husbands, and later divorced. Many were not employed and had been economically dependent on their husbands. For survival, they often tried alternatives such as assisting building construction work, agricultural work or domestic work. Sometimes they were sexually exploited in addition to having to work for minimal wages. In these conditions some of them turned to sex work as their means of livelihood.

"I have tried many other kinds of work. I was working in the building construction field. There I had to do hard work and give free sexual services to my employer. Later, I decided to give sexual services only with payment, so that I did not have to do a double workload, much of it without payment." (Sex worker, public meeting, Kerala)

Lodge-based sex workers tend to work during the day and go home in the evenings. For street sex workers, however, there are neither brothels nor a red light district demarcated for commercial sexual activity and they tend to work almost every day and night. Clients who can afford it take them to lodges or hotels, but in the case of very poor clients, sexual activity takes place under the shade of bushes, in unused buildings and other such places.

A needs assessment with women sex workers who attended drop-in centres was done in 1997-98 by FIRM, with the technical support of the State Management Agency set up by the Kerala State AIDS Control Society. It included interviews with the women and focus group discussions, in which the women were asked to list their most pressing problems. Those were, in order of priority: violence from the police, lack of support for their children, lack of shelter, lack of social services support and health problems. (1) These problems are described in this paper.

The social environment in which sex is bought and sold

The public usually tolerate women soliciting at the roadside. On occasions, however, someone calls the police and asks them to arrest the women, complaining that they are making a public nuisance. Or, sometimes a few people decide to clean up the street or the town and chase the women out or harass them by stoning or beating. Hence, street sex workers spend their lives hiding under the darkness of night or wearing a facade of respectability.

People hesitate to provide houses for rent to sex workers unless they have a male caretaker who acts as husband. Sometimes, the women are harassed or evicted from their homes in the name of morality. In 2003 a sex workers' organisation sent the following open letter to human rights activists:

"... Chakla Bazaar is the only red light area in Gujarat state, existing for the last 400 years, where 600 sex workers are doing their business. For the last few months, we have been harassed by the local police, who are forcing us to vacate our homes. The owners of our houses have locked us out and many of us are now homeless, economically broke and facing hunger. We have 60 children who are starving ... and we seek urgent help with these problems ..." (Letter from the President of Sahyog Mahila Mandal, a registered organisation of sex workers, Surat, 2 September 2003)

Sex workers' own family members often exploit them by asking them for money, yet often they will not acknowledge the women as relatives or invite them to family functions such as weddings. Sometimes a woman's whole family may be ostracised by the community.

The women may also be denied state benefits such as the food ration card, housing loans and old age pensions, which are available to other women. Their children may not be allowed to study in local schools if the women's identity is revealed. Hence, sex workers who can afford it send their children to boarding schools far away from where they live, which separates them from their children. This situation has been found in other parts of India as well, according to a national study by the Women's Commission. (2)

Most state- and NGO-run childcare centres and orphanages do not allow sex workers to maintain a relationship with their children if they admit the children into care. The perception is that the children will be "damaged" by their "immoral" mothers. Thus, the women's right to motherhood is denied.

Physical and mental health of sex workers

Homeless street sex workers have no place to sleep or rest. Sometimes they just travel in a bus or go to the cinema to sleep; some sleep inside or underneath stopped buses at night though they risk arrest or harassment by criminals. (3) There are also no facilities for washing, bathing or maintaining personal hygiene. Because of social stigma, the women are not allowed to use public facilities, or have to pay heavily for them. Most of the women are anaemic because of lack of proper nutrition and health care.

Some 80% of the women who come to the clinics at the drop-in centres are suffering from either physical or mental illness. The physical problems they have described include injuries from violence, asthma and rheumatic disorders, (4) but they are also at risk of many others, especially sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. A study among sex workers in Thrissur, Kerala, in 2000 showed prevalences of syphilis at 34%, chlamydia 5.4% and trichomoniasis 28.5%. In unlinked anonymous testing for HIV, 3.8% were found to be positive. (5) They have also complained of vaginal discharge, genital ulcer, urinary tract infection and lower abdominal pain.

About 40% of those coming to the clinics are suffering from psychological illnesses such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, mood disorders and schizophrenia. The most common are depression and deliberate self-harm. Where there has been emotional violence from close family members, deliberate self-harm, including suicide attempts, is not uncommon Women reported cutting their veins, taking poison and burning themselves. (3)

An environment of violence and risk

A study among 200 sex workers in Tamil Nadu about the violence they had experienced found that more than 95% had experienced violence, especially when they first began working. (6) Our observation is that any woman surviving in the street has undergone violence inflicted by police or men in the street from five to 50 times a year. The most risky period is the first weeks of a woman entering sex work; later, they develop survival strategies. (3)

The forms of violence described by sex workers include beating, acid attacks, stabbing or cutting with knives, breaking arms or legs, sexual harassment, rape, hitting with hard objects, throwing stones, shaving heads, putting chili powder in the eyes, beating the soles of the feet and then forcing them to jump up and down--and murder. There are on average ten murders of sex workers every year in Kerala.

Violence against the women involves both law enforcement agencies and criminals in the street, and is often inflicted without provocation or reason Sometimes criminals attack them if they do not agree to assist in criminal activities or hesitate to provide sex on demand, and this may end in murder. Last year, the president of the sex workers' organization in Kolkata was beaten up by criminals. Members of the public who believe commercial sex should be stopped may also take on the role of moral policing.

Police may arrest them at any time and fabricate false obscenity cases against them, e.g. under the Kerala Police Act and Indian Penal Code 294, which deal with obscene acts. Yet the women might be in a tea shop or the market or involved in their daily activities when arrested. This is reported by more than 50% of women coming into the drop-in centres every week. Street sex workers are arrested in Kerala 3-4 times a month, according to oral histories by the women, and an average of 1-2 incidents of violence are reported every day to one drop-in centre, where some 20-30 sex workers visit each day. (3)

In 1999 a woman was taken forcibly by two murderers, who used her to trap the man who was murdered. This woman was caught by the police, and although it was clear that she was not a voluntary participant in the murder, the police beat her up, charged her with the murder and put her in prison. Because she was unable to afford bail, she was kept there until the case was heard, which is policy in Kerala regarding bail.

There is a nexus that includes the police, people who post bail for money and corrupt lawyers who together form an exploitative system. Our NGO along with a support group for sex workers' organisations tried to challenge false charges against sex workers in 2000, and social leaders came forward to post bail for them. This did not succeed because time and again, the day after a woman was released, she would be arrested again.

In the courts, too often magistrates do not ask them any questions but simply punish them on the basis of a previous record. The women then feel insecure and shift to another work area or move to another town. By the time they are called for trial, they might have moved, been threatened by somebody in the nexus or are in prison for another case. (3)

Misuse of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act

Commercial sex work per se is not illegal in India. It is tolerated. But according to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA, 1986), which is the main statute dealing with sex work in India, commercial sex and soliciting in a public place are punishable offences. The Act is intended to protect women from being trafficked, i.e. coerced or forced to participate in selling sex. However, sex work itself is not socially sanctioned but considered a sin or a crime. So law enforcement agencies misinterpret the ITPA and go after the sex workers instead of the traffickers. Thus, sex workers are forced to appear in court frequently, where they are fined, imprisoned or both. They also have to pay heavily to their lawyers and those who post bail for them.

The ITPA is a revision of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act, 1956, which was modelled along the lines of the United Nations International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, 1949. Like this convention, to which India is a signatory, the ITPA is based on the principle that sex work is exploitation and is incompatible with the dignity and worth of human beings. (7) Although the stated goal of the ITPA is to eliminate trafficking, it does not criminalise sex work or sex workers per se, but rather acts by third parties facilitating sex work. Thus, the Act punishes anyone maintaining a brothel, living off earnings of prostitution and procuring, inducing, or detaining for the sake of prostitution. It also provides for the detention in a "corrective institution" of a female offender who solicits publicly, suggesting that censure of sex work is inherent in its approach. (7)

Hence, most anti-trafficking interventions--including rescue and rehabilitation operations--end up either criminalising or victimising the sex worker, while having a minimal impact on traffickers or those responsible for exploitation, who circumvent the law. (7) Data on the enforcement of the ITPA indicate that over 90% of those arrested under the Act are women sex workers. The other 10% include brothel keepers, pimps and clients. (8) Sections 7 and 8 of the ITPA directly target sex workers by penalising sex work in public places and solicitation, respectively. Section 8B, under which 90% of the women are arrested, forbids "soliciting in a public place". (9) Usually convictions under these sections are immediate, as sex workers confess to the charge to expedite the proceedings, a better option than being detained to await trial and lose earnings. (10) In practice, the police use these provisions without actually invoking them, along with local regulations, to harass sex workers, particularly those working in the streets. Thus, a law aimed at protecting women is being used to punish them. (11)

HIV/AIDS prevention projects brought sex workers together

In the 1990s the problem of HIV transmission emerged in Kerala. Although sex workers are viewed as transmitters of HW by the public, a view propagated by the media, involvement in HIV/ AIDS prevention projects first gave sex workers in Kerala an opportunity to come together to fight for their rights. Sex workers of Kerala are in the process of collectivisation and their political consciousness is being formed simultaneously.

The State Government Health Department initiated a targeted intervention programme among sex workers to promote safer sex, as part of the National AIDS Control Programme. The State AIDS Control Society, constituted under the Health Department in 1993, supported NGOs who were working with high risk groups. There were a few NGOs willing to work with the sex worker community, including FIRM. Peer education was one of the strategies adopted by the Programme, and peer educators were selected by these NGOs from among sex workers for training on the basis of leadership, acceptance by peers and willingness to work with the projects.

Drop-in centres where sex workers could come together and get trained as peer educators were established in Kerala's main cities and towns, namely Kozhikode, Kochi, Thrissur, Kannur, Kottayam, and Thiruvananthapuram. Peer educators were trained in safer sex practices, including condom use, and early identification of STIs and the need for treatment. They were given condoms to distribute to other sex workers and clients. Drop-in centres were an attractive place for street sex workers, not least because they provided for their basic needs, such as bathing and resting, and in the centres established by FIRM in Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur we began to record oral histories and experiences of sex workers.

In Mumbai, there was a rapid increase in HIV among sex workers in the 1990s. (12) It was not brought under control because the sex workers in Mumbai were not organised and were under the control of brothel owners. In Sonagachi, the red light district in Kolkata in West Bengal, on the other hand, along with HW prevention activities, they formed sex workers' groups and trained peer educators. Supervisors of the programme were also selected from among sex workers. They also formed a co-operative society for alternative income generation and to support their own activities, a trade union and a cultural group. This helped to improve the effectiveness of HW prevention programmes, and STI prevalence was also reduced. (13)

In spite of awareness of the need for STI/HIV prevention, however, sex workers cannot always practise safer sex. If they carry condoms, for example, the police will take it as evidence of sex work. (14) Further, if clients refuse to use a condom, the women cannot insist as they do not have the bargaining power to negotiate with the client. Even when the client is willing, they cannot always use condoms properly. Sometimes sexual activity takes place in the dark under trees and in empty buildings, not good conditions for safe sex. Using a condom and practising safe sex take time but sex workers have to be on the alert for a police raid, which can occur at any moment, making them hurry to finish. The hotels and lodges are also at risk and provide minimum time. Hotel owners are reluctant to keep condoms because of shame and fear of criminal complicity. (3)

Because of fears of HIV infection, we witnessed the harassment of two women sex workers who were chased by the public at the initiative of social leaders in their village in 1996. Their heads were shaven, and they were taken away by the police and tested for HW without their consent in the hospital. Their neighbours cut off all contact with their families, and they were not even allowed to collect water from the neighbourhood pipe. Following a fact-finding visit to the family and village, the women were placed in a rescue home for protection. Women from FIRM and Kerala Stree Vedi, a network of Kerala women's organisations, visited the neighbours and conducted a campaign and public meetings to change people's attitudes. Many people came forward to support the women.

Rehabilitation is not a solution

Solutions to the problem of sex work are often concentrated on rehabilitation and law. Sexual morality as a basis for rehabilitation of sex workers first arose in the charity movement in England in the 19th century. Sex workers were seen on one hand as deviants whose sexuality needed to be curtailed, and on the other as hapless victims who had been forced into sex work and had to be saved. This movement evolved into a strong lobby for the abolition of sex work. (15) Thus, "rehabilitation" in a rescue shelter or similar institution was conceived.

Now, whenever human rights activists raise the issue of violence towards sex workers, the Government asks the Social Welfare Department and others to make suggestions for the rehabilitation of the women, which are usually unrealistic. For example, in 2000, the State Women's Commission charted out a programme for rehabilitation (16) that included training of women for six months with a stipend of Rs.500, an amount that the women earn in two or three days. Further, if women have to appear in court regularly, they cannot go for training. These practical difficulties were not considered so the programme was a failure. In the media, however, the authorities said it failed due to the women's lack of interest. Similarly, the Social Welfare Department has recently initiated a programme that would require women to stay in an institution and work. Their wages would be deposited in a bank account, and their children kept in juvenile homes till they were admitted to school. The women need their money in hand, however, to look after their dependents, and do not want their children in a juvenile home, which they regard as another form of prison.

Such discourses do not consider the women as agents for social change, and are not aimed at providing a safe environment for them or protecting their rights. This is also true of most suggestions for changes in anti-trafficking laws.

Living standards may be very poor in these shelters, which to women interviewed in Kolkata in 1990, were worse than prison. They described scarcity of space and lack of cleanliness, not enough food or health care and no extracurricular activities. They said they would prefer to go back to their brothels where at least they had some independence and decent food. (17) Even now, this situation has not improved.

"In the arena of dominant anti-trafficking legal trends and interventions, there is an ideological imperative to infantalize adult women so that they may be more easily cast into the mould of the 'innocent victim' worthy of being saved, rescued and assisted. It is true that even adults could be 'innocent' and 'victims', and indeed are in many arenas but when it comes to trafficking the logic appears to be somewhat different. According to the dominant thinking of law and policymakers as well as some other stakeholders, when trafficking is nothing more than prostitution then a woman who has 'fallen' into prostitution, albeit under coercion, ceases to be 'innocent'. And if she happened to practice the trade then she is no more a "pure victim: According to this dominant thinking, the only way a trafficked woman's 'innocence' and "pure victim status' has some possibility of being restored so that she may become worthy of assistance, is to treat her like a child. This effectively means that she is denied the right to exercise her autonomy and agency, and she is considered unfit to act in her own best interest." (18)

At the same time, the women's real problems are not addressed by the state. These include health problems, violence, social isolation, lack of safety and security, education of children, ageing problems and human rights violations.

More than 80% of sex workers in Thiruvananthapuram said during our 1997-98 needs assessment that they also preferred prison to the rescue home as even basic facilities such as water, toilet and food were better in prison. Sex workers from Thrissur described a local rescue home in the 1980s where a sex worker was punished by putting her in a cage where she could not stand properly. When the authorities visited the institution, she was released. Women from Kochi cited another incident in which about 50 sex workers were locked in a small hall for many days without proper facilities and were let out only after they made a loud protest. Thus, women sex workers prefer to undergo all the violence of the street and prison to "imprisonment in a rescue home". In 2003, a few women from Kochi were put in a rescue shelter by the authorities, along with some beggars. The sex workers' organisation protested and campaigned for their release.

Sex workers organising for their rights

HIV prevention projects cannot succeed unless the rights of sex workers are addressed. The legal status of the women is not yet changed. Sex workers in Kerala are still considered criminals and police harassment continues. They are still arrested even for distributing condoms.

Since 1997 FIRM and other NGOs working with sex workers have begun to address violence and human rights issues in conferences, seminars, workshops and public meetings at the same time as HW prevention activities, not only in Kerala but also in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. We have campaigned for decriminalisation of sex work, social acceptability of sex workers, their right to a livelihood and freedom from violence. We argue that HW prevention is possible only if an enabling environment is created for sex workers, in which they can live as free citizens.

More recently, sex workers themselves have organised gatherings in which they speak and public leaders and policymakers have participated. In Thrissur, there were a number of public speeches, seminars and cultural programmes. In Kozhikode, there was a national meeting of peer educators in 1998. A state-level conference was held in 1999 in which government officials and social leaders participated. All-India meetings of sex workers were held in Kerala in 2000 and 2003, a joint effort of different sex workers' groups, their national network and supporting NGOs, addressing decriminalisation, sex workers' rights, narration of personal histories and HIV prevention. Participants included hundreds of sex workers, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, rights activists, media activists and people from many other walks of life. Sex workers have made demands for protection from violence to the authorities, demonstrated in front of state and district government offices and participated in other popular struggles such as the environmental and peace movements.

This has made sex work visible publicly and initiated a debate in the media on sexuality and morality. In some states, like Andhra Pradesh, changes are happening; the State Government decided to stop arresting sex workers. In others, there has been a backlash, e.g. in Kolkata. (19,20) In Kerala in 1999, a group of street criminals who work part-time as auto-rickshaw drivers attacked them in the street at midnight with sticks and stones.

On the other hand, there have been attempts to raise the issue of sex work with policymakers and law enforcement agencies. The Lawyer's Collective has formulated recommendations on legal changes related to HIV, in which decriminalisation of sex work is included." This has been discussed with social activist groups and will be submitted to the Government. The National Network of Sex Workers' Organisations is campaigning for decriminalisation of sex work. The National Women's Commission and some women's organisations have also made recommendations, but the women's right to choose the work is not included in these. The National Women's Commission still does not seem to make a distinction between child prostitution and consensual adult sex. (16)

Supporters of sex workers believe that sex workers have agency while opponents believe that sex workers are always exploited. On both sides there are social activists, feminists, religious leaders, lawyers and others. "Why can't you do some other work?" "Why can't you live in a rehabilitation centre?" These questions are repeatedly asked in Kerala debates.

As a result, some human rights activists, women activists, social workers, media people and social leaders have taken up more concrete support. For example, the NGOs Nava Jeevan Bala Bhavan and Chilla and individuals look after street sex workers' children. Sex workers are now represented in the media and invited onto television programmes. Documentaries have been made about their lives, e.g. a televised documentary called Womanhood Estranged in the Street in 1999 (21) and Guhya by a feminist activist. (22) Two leaders, Nalini and Lalitha, got trained in video-making and documented their lives. Nalini made a documentary Jwalamukhikal (Volcanoes) with the help of the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women and media supporters.

Sex workers' rights need to be seen in an environmental justice framework, which has been defined as the pursuit of equal justice and equal protection under the law without discrimination based on race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. It includes a guarantee of equal access to community resources and meaningful community participation with Government and decision-makers. Environmental justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free from any form of bias or discrimination. (23) Environmental justice affirms the fundamental tight to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all people and the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation. (24) Environmental justice affirms the tight of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood or unemployment. (25) Environmental justice is also defined as the right to a safe, healthy, productive and sustainable environment for all, and the conditions in which such tights can be freely exercised. (26) This framework is appropriate to the problems faced by sex workers. They should not be discriminated against based on their occupation or sexual behaviour. They should participate in decision-making processes in which their welfare is at stake. The safety of their work environment also has to be ensured. Creating an enabling environment is envisaged by the National AIDS Control Programme but translating it into reality requires policy changes and sensitisation of the public.

Sexuality and the sexual rights of sex workers

That accepting money for sex is considered a crime is based on sexual morality. Women are blamed for not maintaining chastity as if only they are responsible. However, sexuality is controlled in such a way that men have more sexual freedom and power.

"'Sexual services are a need of society. We are providing it. The society needs it because families are not fulfilling all the needs of people. If society did not need it, we would not exist."

Sex workers understand that the failure of sexual fulfillment in the relationships society sanctions and their own lack of access to resources are the real reasons why commercial sex flourishes. Sexual need is created by others and sex workers are used to fulfill it. To protect those who need their services, they are purposely isolated by society and their rights denied. Basic assumptions must be exposed, however, including the belief that sex workers are responsible for their own unhealthy environment and that it is the duty of women to protect the sexual morality of society.

Sex workers recognise that it is the lack of access to sexual pleasure which leads to this unhealthy situation. Hence, they question the concept of rehabilitation as a remedy and do not find it a solution. Rehabilitation of one woman only brings a new woman in to fill the space at the cost of the sexual freedom of the rehabilitated woman.

As part of the collectivisation process, the women have periodic group discussions in which they challenge many common notions society has about them and discuss how to enjoy pleasure and freedom in their given situation. Sex workers can survive and improve the adverse conditions of their work, transforming the environment and making it advantageous to themselves. They have the opportunity to explore their own sexuality, they can refuse to sell sex to a person they do not like and choose a partner they do desire. They can engage in playfulness in sexual activity and learn skills to provide companionship to others. They have more space to explore their sexual identity than many other women. Some learn to love other women.

This does not mean that street sex workers have full sexual freedom. Sex work is a site of oppression too. However, most do not want another marriage, and those who are less educated do not have many other options for a livelihood. In the group discussions, women described their sexual histories, which challenge the common notion that sex workers do not have any agency, but are always victims:

"I was sold by my husband in a hotel within the first week of my marriage. So, I decided not to do sex work for him, but for myself. Now I have six children. I gave education to them. I bought land and constructed a house. My daughter is married. My daughters are proud of me as a caring mother."

"I was cheated by my lover. Now I have a son and he has been educated. I looked after him by doing sex work. I tried other work, like selling flowers, but I was attacked by men everywhere. Now I have learned how to negotiate with men. I will continue the same work till I die."

A paradigm shift is necessary to address the problems of sex workers de-linked from the problem of sexual morality. It is not the responsibility of sex workers to answer for the sexual morality of a society that shows them no justice. Their right to enjoy bodily pleasure and to self-determination should also be valued.

The national conference of sex workers in India, organised by the National Network of Sex Worker Organisations, held in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in March 2003, was called the "Festival of Pleasure". Its theme was a safe environment for body and mind, for sex workers to attain the full potential of life. It launched a campaign for the decriminalisation of sex work, acceptance of sex workers' rights, and the right to safe and pleasurable sex. Sex workers want an equal opportunity to choose how to live their own lives, in a world without violence and in harmony with their environment.

* The meaning of "environment" as used in this paper includes the body, which is the immediate environment of the self, as well as the physical and social environment.


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Au Kerala, les prostituees vivent dans un environnement coercitif, sont brutalishes par la police et les delinquants, manquent d'hebergements et de soutien pour les soins infantiles, et connaissent de nombreux problemes physiques et psychologiques. Cet article decrit leur environnement depuis 1995 et leurs efforts pour faire valoir leurs droits. Il est fonde sur des recits de femmes, ainsi que sur une analyse de situation et une etude d'evaluation des besoins mente par la Fondation pour la recherche integree en sante mentale. Les prostitutes du Kerala se sont reunies pour la premiere fois a l'occasion de projets de prevention du VIH/SIDA. Certaines sont devenues educatrices et distribuent des preservatifs, mais la police continue de les harceler. La plupart des interventions de lutte contre la traite, notamment les activites de reinsertion, criminalisent les prostitutes ou en font des victimes, et elles les rejettent comme solution a la prostitution. Elles comprennent que l'insatisfaction sexuelle dans d'autres relations et leur manque d'acces a d'autres emplois et ressources sont les raisons pour lesquelles la prostitution prospere. Les prostituees ne sont pas des victimes damunies. Elles ont droit a l'integrite corporelle, au plaisir, a des moyens de subsistance, a l'autodetermination et a un environnement professionnel stir. Elles s'organisent pour affeindre ces objectifs et exigent la depenalisation de la prostitution.


Las trabajadoras de sexo en Kerala viven en un ambiente coercitivo y enfrentan violencia de pane de la policia y de criminales, falta de vivienda, falta de apoyo para el cuidado infantil, y tienen muchos problemas de la salud fisica y mental. Este articulo documenta el ambiente en que las mujeres ban estado vendiendo sexo en Kerala desde 1995, y sus esfuerzos por reclamar sus derechos. Este basado en informes y experiencias de las mismas trabajadoras de sexo, un analisis situacional, y un estudio diagntstico llevado a cabo por la Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health. Las trabajadoras de sexo en Kerala tuvieron la oportunidad de reunirse por primera vez cuando participaron en proyectos de prevencion del VIH/SIDA. Algunas son educadoras de pares y distribuyen condones, pero siguen siendo hostigadas por la policia. La mayoria de las intervenciones en contra del trafico de mujeres, incluyendo el rescate y la rehabilitacion, criminalizan o victimizan alas trabajadoras de sexo, quienes las rechazan como una solucion para el trabajo de sexo. Ellas comprenden que el sexo comercial prospera debido a la falta de satisfaccion sexual en otras relaciones, y a su propia falta de acceso a otro trabajo y otros recursos. Las trabajadoras de sexo no son simples victimas sin agencia. Tienen derecho a la integridad corporal, el placer, el sustento, la autodeterminacion, y un ambiente laboral seguro. Las trabajadoras de sexo se estan organizando para lograr estos objetivos y para exigir la descriminalizacion de su trabajo.

AK Jayasree

Chairperson, Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, E-mail:
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Author:Jayasree, A.K.
Publication:Reproductive Health Matters
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2004
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