Sex Work in the south

A detailed survey profiles the grey world of sex workers in Madras.

In recent times, prompted by the concern over the spread of HIV/AIDS, commercial sex workers have been the focus of a great deal of attention, primarily with the aim of promoting safe sex as method of preventing disease. Despite the numerous groups active among sex workers, and despite the government's professed interest in the matter, there has been no accurate assessment of the total number of people practising the profession in India. Rough estimates suggest that there are well over ten million sex workers in the country, with the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu being considered "high supply zones".

If matters related to the safety of sex work and the rights of sex workers are to be addressed, it is important first to know the extent of the industry, its demography as well as the conditions of work. One of the most systematic and coherent studies was recently carried out in Madras, a city of about six million people and the capital of Tamil Nadu, the state with the highest incidence of HIV cases in the country.

Madras has a conservative profile unlike the more cosmopolitan metros like Bombay, Delhi or Calcutta.  But as the HIV figures suggest and as the survey confirms, the conservative image is only a veneer behind which lurk many clandestine transactions. The survey conducted by the Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), an NGO that has been working with sex workers and the gay community in Madras for close to 15 years, estimates that there are over ten thousand commercial sex-workers in Madras. The ICWO survey actually maps 6300 sex workers in the city.

The survey updates the 1992 figures of the World Health Organisation (WHO) which had then identified 3000 sex workers in Madras.  The secretary of the ICWO AJ Hariharan, who was part of the WHO survey, says the Madras sex industry stands on four pillars — sex workers, clients, brokers and the law enforcing agencies. According to him it is a chicken and egg syndrome where it is difficult to say who surfaces first in the cycle of sex work. The ICWO conducts general health camps once in three months where sex workers are treated for STDs. According to him Madras needs 11,111 condoms a day, or 40,55515 condoms annually.

Categories of sex workers
The ICWO survey focuses on the attitude, behaviour and practice of commercial sex workers in Madras and classifies them into four categories. They are the family-based, street-based, brothel-based and mobile sex workers.

Of the total sample of  6300 people, 4500 belong to the family category. People of this category live in residential areas and operate from their homes often without the knowledge of anyone, including their neighbours. Run by aged sex workers, with their own network of regular clients, new entrants soliciting services come to these family establishments only through special contacts and they are only allowed admission after their identity has been fully verified.

The street workers, who number about 1360, are the next largest category. They get their clients by waiting on the streets. Most of them carry on their work independently, though some rely on brokers for help in getting clients. The preferred method of work is to wait on crowded streets, which provides more custom as well as relative anonymity to the transaction, as opposed to the less frequented localities. Bus stops, railway stations, cinema halls and beaches are the usual venues where the trade is negotiated, from where they go to cheap hotels and lodges with their clients.

The third category consists of sex workers are those who work in brothels. In the survey sample, 365 belong to this category. Madras does not have any distinctly identifiable sex work localities, as there are in Bombay,Delhi or Calcutta. However, there are brothels which function discreetly and openly in the residential areas of the city. Women from the latter segment of the trade work at fixed establishments but those working at the former kind of brothels change their addresses frequently. Both types of brothels are heavily dependent on brokers for their clients.

The fourth category is made up of mobile sex workers, who only number between 90 and110. They also depend on brokers. Every evening, some five or six girls are taken out in a car or a van by brokers on particular routes to visit particular points. Typically these girls are sent to the clients only on the basis of prior appointments. Certain hotels and resorts in and around the city are closely associated with this arrangement, since it forms part of their hospitality services. Under this system, the hotels procure the girls for their customers through brokers who even make arrangements to transport them if needed. In this category of the profession, the girls generally have a different profile from those in the other categories. Most of their clients are short-term business visitors to the city. Given the nature of their clientele and the locales at which they provide services they are expected to be more 'polished' and well dressed. Consequently, their rates are higher.

The majority of the women in the profession come from outside the state, with Andhra Pradesh accounting for 55 percent. Next is Tamil Nadu, with  24 percent, while the other two neighbouring states of Karnataka and Kerala account for 15 and 11 percent. There is a fairly well-organised and systematic method of recruiting the women into the city's sex trade. Most are picked up from regular conduit points in the adjoining states at prices ranging from INR 100,000 to 300,000. Prices vary according to looks, according to a full time broker named Kandasamy. The colour of skin is very important, and dark skin is at a discount.

The arrangement
The relationship between the broker and the newly recruited sex worker is governed by a contract. Brokers go periodically to the recruitment points and procure girls on 37-day contracts. The girls are paid 50 percent of the contracted sum up front as an advance while the remaining dues are paid on their return after the completion of the contract.  For those who are set up at brothels, owners provide breakfast and lunch during their stay, while dinners are normally the clients' responsibility. Though the sex workers are on contract for 37 days, they eventually end up getting paid for only 30 days. Menstruation and travel time are cited as reasons for cutting a week´s salary. Since regular clients are always on the look-out for new faces, the brokers take one set of girls back and return with a fresh set. There are, however, many who end up staying back in the city after their contract expires for lack of opportunities elsewhere and this is what accounts for the large numbers of sex workers other than the floating types ( governed by the contract system).

The number of working days is variable across the different categories. Brothel-based sex workers have a more demanding regimen since they work on all 30 days of the calendar month. As a result they deal with the maximum number of clients. Typically, since a sex worker attached to a brothel has to work without a break through the year, she has to cater to about 270 customers. On the other hand, for those in the street-based, mobile and residential categories work is relatively less demanding. On average, in a month they work for roughly 22, 16 and nine days, respectively.

Earnings likewise are highly variable. The highest income earners are those in the mobile category, whose higher rates ensure an income of INR 6000 a month though they work the least. Those who are attached to brothels earn in the vicinity of INR 4000 for a full month's work. The residential and street-based women earn the least, having to settle for average monthly incomes of INR 3000 rupees and 1500 respectively. Reportedly, and expectedly, given that they have the maximum degree of physical contact, those who work in brothels belong to the medically high risk group.

For those who service clients outside their homes or brothels, the preferred venue for the majority is the client's residence. Hotels and lodges are the next most utilised places. As far as the residential category, brothel and street sex worker categories are concerned, given the clandestine nature of the work, there are frequent changes of addresses and venues of transaction. Those attached to brothels changed their addresses most frequently, even as often as once a month.

As far as clients are concerned, the majority approach sex workers directly. At any given time, the majority of them are new comers and only thirty percent are regulars. Interestingly, only 22 percent of the clients stated that the reasons for soliciting the services of sex workers was "immediate satisfaction of the sexual urge". Some 11 percent even claimed lack of domestic privacy, primarily the presence of grown up children in crowded households.

The usual suspects
In the city, there are 150 full time sex brokers and 4500 part-timers. Brokers engage in two types of activity – procuring girls for brothels and serving as intermediaries between sex workers and clients. They get a 30 percent commission from the brothel owners for the supply of girls, besides a separate cut for bringing clients to the brothels. Most of the part time brokers are drivers or auto-rickshaws and taxis and rickshaw pullers, as well as tour and travel trade operators, bartenders, waiters and even watchmen. Some of them graduate from being brokers to full fledged brothel owners.

The entire sex industry in Madras, it is said, flourishes under police protection, something not entirely unbelievable given that many 'prominent' middle-men and brokers have been around in this business for quite some time. Owners of brothels that function openly and street sex workers pay a fixed amount of money to the police to avoid arrest and harassment. Given this nexus between the industry and the police, the latter periodically go through the motions of brothel-busting and arrests, but only to meet the requirement of the minimum number of 'cases'. There is a pattern to the arrests of sex workers. The street based workers are arrested about twice a month, brothel-based workers once a month, whereas those from the mobile and residential categories are hauled up once in two months. Girls caught in such raids are produced before a magistrate where they pay a fine and after which they are set free.

The city police, however, is quick to distance itself from such facts about the trade and its unofficial connections with police personnel. A Joint Commissioner of Police claims that the anti-vice squads have been systematically working to eliminate 'sex crimes' in the city. He also disagrees with the study's estimate of sex workers in Madras, claiming that the figures are much lower.

A choice or a compromise
Despite the precarious conditions of the work, the sex profession continues to attract a steady stream of girls. Most join the profession because of poverty and financial obligations, mainly family debt. Others land into this following failed marriage. In fact, as many as a third of the respondent said they came into the profession because their husbands had left them. Social factors also have a role to play, as is evident from the fact that nine percent say they entered the trade because their lovers had deserted them.

Significantly, the majority of sex workers have primary education, are married, have children and are in the 26-35 age group. Half of the respondents have a single child, 41 percent have two, and 10 percent have three children to look after. The women's main priority is the child's future, and more than 75 percent do not want their children to follow in their own footsteps. More than 30 percent wanted to send their children to boarding schools while 14 percent thought it safer to deposit them with relatives. Tragically, however, more than one fifth are convinced that they will be unable to stop their children from entering the profession.

The level of awareness about sexually transmitted diseases is reasonably high, perhaps as a consequence of the numerous HIV prevention programmes that have been initiated. More than two thirds of the interviewees are aware of being in a HIV high risk group. Fully 68 percent of the sex workers reported regular condom use. The remaining 22 percent do not practice safe sex for various reasons, while quite a few do not use condoms because of misconceptions. Some feel that they cannot contract HIV or other STDs because they are clean and healthy and have regular medical check ups. Others feel secure because they cater to regular clients whom they believe to be healthy. Some believe that washing themselves with soda immediately after every encounter ensures safety. Then there are those who think that they are safe from HIV because they do not do oral sex.

The content matter of the survey throws up pointers toward the onerous tasks ahead for various civil society groups, government agencies and the public in general. While the survey itself is an exercise in this direction, the need for the involvement of various actors cannot be overstated.

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Himal Southasian