No, this is not about butchers!
There are forms of flesh trade where the person whose body is sold is not fortunate enough to die once!
There have been two articles in THE HINDU today which have dealt with what can be termed as the “oldest profession” in the world! One of the articles that was published in today’s Sunday supplement talks about a village in Uttar Pradesh where all women of a certain age sell their bodies for sexual gratification of men. These women belonging to the “Nat” community are pushed into this profession by birth by their family. A horrible tradition similar to the “Devadasi” system that prevails south of the Vindhyas.
There was another article in the same paper that talks about difference between “consensual sex work” and “sexual exploitation”. According to the article “Sex workers and women’s rights activists across India have welcomed the Government’s move to drop the word “prostitution” as exploitation from the amended Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code. The new formulation targets sexual exploitation and not adult consensual sex work.”
I have some basic discomfort with the idea of “adult consensual sex work”. When sex becomes work and the human body becomes a commodity that has value in “use” and “exchange” then there is something intrinsically wrong somewhere! If we take into account the fact that majority of the people who are engaged in the sex trade are women – particularly those from deprived socio economic backgrounds then the word ‘consensual” sounds very hollow ! A person, who engages in the business of selling sex, is doing so because they lack any other resource that has economic value for them! Though similar to manual labor as a concept in terms of the deprivation that leads one towards it, it is very different in every other way! A sex worker is socially ostracized by all and her work until recently was seen as “illegal”!
Inherent around the concept of sex work is exploitation! It is not a matter of choice. The woman who is engaged in sex trade is never the decision maker with regard to the terms of the trade. There are others like pimps who decide the price that her body would fetch ,the number of hours it would work or persons that it would service! The poor woman gets only a fraction of the amount her body makes – the rest being pocketed by the other players –pimps, police etc. While decriminalization of this work may in theory remove the need to bribe the police, would it increase the percentage of her earnings?
I have spent nearly two decades with the nonprofit sector. . Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is not a homogenous world – there are sectors and subsectors of specialization within it, with each sector having its own theories of change. My experience of working with sex workers is limited . But as a person who has spent years working on livelihoods, I can say that the arguments around social and economic exploitation remain the same across whatever livelihoods one may like to apply them ! Would legalizing sex work improve the conditions of the sex worker? When the government is not able to enforce minimum wages for agriculture wage laborers can they ensure rightful wages for sex workers? Would a police man who makes nasty remarks about any rape victim be ready to take down the complaint of a sex worker if she says that she has been raped by a client?
Actually, many people do not realize that sex workers can also be raped! I had the opportunity once to speak to a group of sex workers in Rajahmundry which is a hub for sex work in Southern India. The kind of violence that a sex worker is subjected to as she earns her living is nothing short of rape! I met a young girl who claimed to be twenty ( though she did not look older than sixteen) standing at a “pick up” point in the town. She was about eight months pregnant. Hearing her experiences with clients was like listening to a horror story. She told me about men who hit her, kicked her and then sometimes left without paying her- and all this being done to her when she was pregnant! It was a wonder that she had not miscarried! But she still continued to do this work because she had no other options and with a baby on the way, it was all the more important that she continue to earn!
Most in the nonprofit sector got into the business of working with sex workers with the advent of the HIV/AIDs projects. There was huge funding for these projects and these poor women were carriers of the infection. The entire focus of most of these projects was to contain the infection. Though many of these organizations did take up the rights issues of the sex workers few really thought of long term solutions to help them cope with their professions. Some moralistic NGOs thought of training these women in tailoring and detergent soap making so that they would give ups sex work! Most laughable idea! No woman ever gives it up! Once they are in it , it is a profession for life until they are too old! They may leave it temporarily but they come back to it!
Our country is working on many social security schemes for those in the unorganized sector. I am not sure how many NGOs actually got round to ensuring these ladies got access to these schemes? How many microfinance organizations were able to develop savings products for women like my pregnant friend at Rajahmundry who could have used their savings during such difficult periods.
It is not enough to talk about “consensual sex work” unless one is able to turn sex work round on its head in such a manner that there is “fair” trade. Unfortunately, in a society like ours where even married women have limited control over their bodies and sexuality, expecting that a law would bring about dignity to this work is very farfetched!