The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sex workers & tribals bond in rights fight

Thiruvananthapuram, March 2: They had initially called their national conference the “Festival of Pleasure”. But turbulent developments in Kerala, hosting the three-day meet, have compelled sex workers from across the country to rename it as ‘Festival With No Pleasure’.

The developments in Kerala that caused a rethink among the organisers are related to the clashes between law enforcement agencies and adivasis at the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary.

“We are in no way insular to the problems of other sections of society. In fact, we and the tribals share the same kind of oppression from the state and large segments of society,” said Nalini Jalila, an activist of the Sex Workers’ Forum of Kerala, the prime organiser of the conference.

The clashes at Muthanga last week had led to many casualties and tribal activists have been complaining that the reign of terror unleashed by the police in the tribal villages of the Wayanad hill district of north Kerala is still continuing.

Many of the activists who work to better the lot of sex workers in Kerala find common cause with those working among tribals. The solidarity expressed at the conference is the result of this cooperation on the field.

Nalini said both tribals and sex workers are considered outcasts. “We are both fighting for our basic human rights. So we dedicate this conference to the landless tribals who have been agitating for their constitutional rights.”

The conference attended by 300-odd delegates is basically aimed at sensitising sex workers and the public on the rights and liberties of a sex worker. The conference will also highlight the need and the methods to prevent the spread of AIDS.

The largest contingent has come from Calcutta. The 46-member delegation, including social activists and sex workers, have come under the auspices of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta-based NGO working for the uplift of sex workers.

Komal Gandhar, the cultural wing of the committee presented a dance drama titled, ‘I am that Woman depicting the sad state of exploitation faced by women in society’.

Swapna Gayen, president of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, which has 60,000 members in Bengal, said the national meet helped inculcate confidence in the group, which has always been treated as outcast.

The festival was inaugurated by the lighting of lamps by sex workers and human rights activists. Seminars on topics like ‘Problems of Different Equalities’, ‘Violence, Sex Work and the Law’, and ‘AIDS and AID’ are to be held as part of the conference. A few foreign delegates have also come for the conference.

Jo Doezema of the International HIV/Aids Alliance, UK, said the plight of sex workers in third world countries is not worse than that of sex workers in developed countries.

“Sex workers all over the world have common problems. You would be surprised to know that in France, police would detain you if you simply ‘dress-up’ like a sex worker!” she said. “I find that sex workers in India have an incredible degree of unity and this is absolutely necessary to fight for the basic rights of this oppressed section of society.”

“You need us for sex, you need us to prevent AIDS, you need us to kick and condemn— what fun!” exclaimed Neena, a delegate from Mumbai. “Here, I feel a sense of security and belonging amidst other sex workers,” she said.

“We are not destroyers of families. On the contrary, families stay together because of us,” said Rama Debnath, a delegate from Calcutta.

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