Sonam, came to Delhi at 15 and was pushed into sex work. At first she was unhappy and longed to go back home, says Sonam, now 31. But life in the brothel became comfortable because her madam treated her like a daughter. “This ‘kotha’ and its people are home and family now,” she says.
NGOs say that sex workers are desperate to get out of the business and earn their living in different ways. But if you’ve no skills, finding a job that pays as well as prostitution is no easy matter.
Would Sonam take up the government rehabilitation scheme? “Why not?” she says.
“If the new job can give me as much money as this one, I’m willing to give this up right away! But I don’t hate this work. I could buy a two-room house in Delhi and send my daughter to a private school because of this work. It’s not begging... I work hard to earn a living.”
In the slums of east Delhi, 54-year-old Payal is a sex worker and pimp. She’s positive about the rehabilitation scheme and says she is tired of living a double life. She has to hide her work from her husband, children, parents and neighbours.
Most sex workers might be keen to get out of the profession, but for illiterate women, earnings in other jobs just can’t compete, the first pan-India survey of sex workers found.
What’s more, many sex workers often have two or three jobs at the same time. A domestic worker could moonlight as a sex worker, or a woman working in a factory might also be offering sexual services to her bosses on the side.
“Before I die, I want to see a different life,” says a tearful Lalli, who was brought into the red light district at the age of five. “So training me in stitching or something is fine but they must give us houses to live in and find us work too. That will be complete rehabilitation."
But sex work can never be abolished, she says. “So it’s best to allow sex workers who wish to continue carry on, but improve their living conditions."
Fauzia, a home-based sex worker aged 29, is cynical about the rehabilitation scheme. She thinks it’s a step towards banning prostitution. A friend of hers was forced into a remand home by authorities, she says – though according to the Supreme Court order sex workers mustn’t be forced into training or corrective homes.
Like Sonam, Fauzia also says sex work pays for a life she would otherwise never be able to afford. Her earnings are paying for her son’s education and a plot of land.
(All names have been changed on request.)
How do you think the goverment should deal with sex work?