For the past 12 years, Gouri Ray lived in the hope that the law would change one day. But she didn’t know it would eventually come with a twist in the tale.
Ray is no legal eagle. But ask her about Section 8 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, and she knows exactly what the few paragraphs of legalese ' or the changes proposed to them for that matter ' mean to her and some 24 lakh women across India who ply her trade. “It’s absurd,” is all she has to say. A commercial sex worker by profession, Ray works out of a one-room tenement in the bylanes of Sonagachhi, Calcutta’s red light district. The days are mundane, and dusk comes with Ray and her colleagues setting out on a task that is tantamount to walking the legal tightrope ' that of finding clients for the night.
The older clients often come back. But the new ones need to be attracted. It’s here that the law throws a spanner in the works. Sex work is not a crime, but seducing or soliciting for the purpose of prostitution is. The punishment for soliciting ' by words, gestures, wilful exposure of person or loitering around ' is imprisonment, ranging from six months to a year along with a monetary fine.
The clause has long been debated and activists have often called for its repeal. Some months ago, it seemed as if the government was moving in the right direction when the Planning Commission proposed that sex work be legalised. The Department of Women and Child Development followed suit by proposing a new Bill, doing away with Section 8, and allowing public soliciting. The proposal came to light earlier this month and the new Bill is slated to be tabled in Parliament in the ongoing winter session.
That, exactly, was what Ray had always hoped for. But like throwing a drowning person both ends of the rope, the commission has also proffered the induction of a clause that would, in the future, make it illegal for a client to visit a prostitute. “How do you think that would make things any better for us'” asks Ray. “It will scare away clients, since anyone engaging in sex with a prostitute would then stand the risk of being whisked away by the police and fined. Even if soliciting becomes legal, who would we approach for business, given that few would then be adventurous enough to accept our offer'”
Ray’s fears are not completely unfounded. As a member and current secretary of the Calcutta-based Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee (DMSC) ' which is administered, among others, by sex workers for the benefit of their community ' Ray knows how difficult life might become for sex workers in India if the changes are implemented. “All the hard work that we have done in trying to give sex workers their rights would go in vain,” she says.
Many hundred miles away in Delhi, lawyer Tripti Tandon of the Delhi-based Lawyers’ Collective ' legal representatives of the DMSC ' articulates Ray’s apprehensions. “Over the past six years, DMSC has brought about a significant change in the lives of sex workers in the country,” she explains. “Their campaign of ‘no condom, no sex’ has reported a 90 per cent success rate in Sonagachhi. Besides, their programmes for the welfare of sex workers and their families have also seen active participation by prostitutes. Criminalising sex with a prostitute could strike a body blow to their efforts, as the whole business could be forced to go underground.”
Over the years, efforts have been made ' both by sex workers and activists ' to remove the veil of shame that tends to shroud the profession. DMSC, for one, has set up a board in Sonagachhi with the purpose of registering every new sex worker who comes to the district. “The process ensures that every woman taking up the flesh trade is above 18 years of age, and is doing so out of her own will,” says Rama Debnath, former president, DMSC. “It’s our way of checking illegal trafficking of women. Tomorrow, if the law forces prostitution to go underground, do you think this initiative would still be feasible,” she asks.
Being a ‘flying’ sex worker herself ' one who goes out with a client rather than invite him over ' Debnath feels the amendment would spell a virtual demise for what she calls the ‘bus-stop situation’. “Clients would now feel wary of picking us up from public places like bus stops, for it is they who would now be at the receiving end. Checking into a hotel with a sex worker could mean inviting trouble upon oneself. There’s no doubt that work would dry up once the law comes into force,” she says.
Income, workers complain, has anyway been dwindling. “By the time a sex worker has parted with cuts for her pimp, landlord, the beat cops, moneylenders, provision suppliers, doctors and local goons, she has precious little to carry back home,” complains Khairati Lal Bhola, president of the Delhi-based sex workers’ forum Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha (BPUS). “Given the fact that the law also forbids living off the income of prostitutes, imagine how difficult things might get for the families that are fed by sex workers.” Some 55 lakh children spread across 1,100 red light districts are currently dependent on sex workers, he adds.
Debnath, who runs a family in a North 24 Parganas town in West Bengal with the money earned from sex work in Calcutta, echoes Bhola’s sentiments. “Our children cannot stay with us. They cannot depend on our income. If everyone else has the right to live with their families, there’s no reason why we should remain a segregated community,” she says.
The proposed law has other reforms in mind, such as doing away with third-party profiteers, including pimps and brothel owners. But, as Ray points out, the proposals are not quite practical. “I get no receipt for the Rs 3,000 that I pay as monthly rent for my room in Sonagachhi,” she says. “How would one prove the fact that my landlord lives off prostitution' And pimps are not marked out by their presence either,” she argues.
Living in quarters where identities are not endorsed by voters’ cards or ration cards, and labour rights is little more than a phrase, it’s hard to take a stand. “But it’s easy to be neglected,” says Ray. “Which is probably the reason the government didn’t consult us before prescribing the changes. Are we so redundant in society, after all'”
A petition, though, has been shot by Bhola to the Central government to take urgent notice of the situation. DMSC has sent a letter to the government in protest against some of the clauses of the proposal. Representatives from DMSC are currently on a nationwide tour, with the objective of increasing public awareness and asking people to lend voice to their mission.
In the meantime, thousands of sex workers in the country are perhaps working out new ways to woo passers-by if soliciting ceases to be a crime. Their audience, however, may not be interested any longer.