HYDERABAD — Sex workers in towns and villages in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are often married off at a young age, or trafficked to larger cities.
Statistics released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) place Andhra Pradesh second, behind West Bengal, for the prevalence of human trafficking. Many of those being trafficked are young girls, and the UN office says that in January alone, 939 minor girls were reported missing from the southeastern state.
But one positive development is that a growing number of the women who have been victims of trafficking or child marriage are now working closely with legal authorities and the police to help put an end to the practices. Their success in this endeavor can be gauged from the fact that in 2017, they helped arrest more than 200 traffickers in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, many of whom were trafficking girls as young as 10 years old. To protect such rescued girls, the sex workers help get them admitted into residential schools being run by the state government across Andhra Pradesh.
How has this incredible turnaround taken place? How have these women managed to find the courage to challenge those very people who had been exploiting them for so long?
Among the women who chose to describe her own personal journey was Rajeshwari from Kadiri in Andhra Pradesh, who has been engaged in sex work for the last two decades. A three-day workshop in 2015 by the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) was a turning point in her life. There she learned from a retired judge about different laws including Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POSCO) and the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act. She was also given help learning how to cope with sexual violence and sexual harassment.
"We were given a crash course on different laws," Rajeshwari recalls. "We were also taught how to deal with cases of domestic violence and marital conflict, and in cases of trafficking and child marriage, we had to inform the district authorities by using the child helpline."
I know the situation on the ground.
The workshop gave her enough confidence to start working closely with the police and district authorities. "Being a sex worker, I know the situation on the ground," she explained. "When a young girl was sold by a trafficker in the Thane district of Maharashtra, the local police and some NGOs sought my help."
Rajeshwari described how she was taken to help bring the girl back and restore her to her parents who live in Kadiri. She also cites the example of another young girl who was trafficked to Mumbai for a paltry sum. "The madam put her to work and had 20 men arriving to have sex with her every day. We rescued the girl and put her into a school in Hyderabad. The trafficker who took the girl to Mumbai has been arrested," said Rajeshwari.
Rajeshwari's own life bears a startling similarity with the girls she helps rescue. Giving broad details of her life, she recalls how in her early 20s she was taken to Dubai under the pretext of doing domestic work. "After three years of sexual exploitation, I sought police protection," she says. "The police did not help me. Rather, they too exploited me and shamelessly used me for two years. It was only with the help of a local agent that I was able to return to India."
Another woman named Usha, who had been engaged in sex work for over a decade, also says that participating in the legal workshop in Hyderabad provided a new direction to her life.
"It helped me develop a sense of confidence. I also understood for the first time that if I am subject to violence, I can turn to the police for help. Nowadays, we meet the police and the district legal authorities on a regular basis. When the district judge goes to visit a jail, he takes a group of us volunteers along."
Recently, Usha was informed of how a mother had pulled her two daughters out of the local school because she wanted them to be initiated into the same trade.
"A group of us complained to the police. The district child protection unit intervened and the girls have been put into the SOS school in Tirupati to grow up in a more protected and nurturing environment," said Usha.
The origins of the project date back to 2007, when local sex workers in Kadiri felt they needed to start their own NGO. Initially, it provided basic HIV/AIDS services to these women, but they soon realized the disease was just one of the problems they were facing. Equally pressing were issues of social stigma, discrimination and problems of violence by the hands of clients and partners.
In 2011, after having lengthy interactions with several local NGOs, they had gained enough confidence to get JJ registered.
"Now we have hired two rooms in Kadiri where we have set up an office. We meet every week with a special focus on health," Kadiri said.
I sent one daughter each to my two sisters.
Another important initiative these women have taken is to undertake an informal survey of the number of sex workers in the ares, which helps them provide assistance, including help to get out of the street work. "My position is now much more secure and I do not have to do sex work anymore," said Sailaja.
Renuka was deserted by her husband at a young age. "When my daughter was 16 years old, she ran away with a man," she said. "After having three daughters, she came to my house, left her girls with me and disappeared. I subsequently learned that she was abandoned by her husband. I sent one daughter each to my two sisters and brought up one girl myself. Ten years later, my daughter returned because her partner deserted her."
Muni was also married off at a young age and is the mother of three children. She worked for several years as a daily laborer but did not earn enough, so she took to sex work to earn additional money.
"Leaving my three children with my in-laws, I was taken to Mumbai to do sex work but the conditions there were miserable. I was not given proper food to eat, even the water to drink was filthy. I got a truck driver to bring me back to Kadiri," she recalled.
Muni also received a loan, but has spent most of the money on her treatment. While she has succeeded in getting two of her children educated, her youngest daughter is studying in college. "I am working hard to stop child marriages in my district and in the last two months have succeeded in stopping six such marriages," she said.
Rammohan Reddy is a senior lawyer working in Kadiri who is at the forefront of helping these women. "These women tell us we want our children to study and not lead the kind of lives we have led," he says. "The state government has opened 25 schools for girls of sex workers and we assist them in getting their girls admitted there. This has created a situation where traffickers are very angry and these women are constantly being threatened."