The Village that Sells Sex
India’s absence of appropriate sex-education, continued gender bias, low literacy levels and inadequate job opportunities has allowed prostitution to become a form of employment for many of its lower class, including minors.
Uncovering startlingly minimal levels of reproductive-health awareness, homemade abortifacients, alcohol-abuse and HIV ignorance through personal interviews, the barriers to uptake of current government health initiatives for sex workers are clear.
For a country on the brink of an HIV epidemic, these issues urgently need to be addressed. Remaining a mainly patriarchal society, implementing a public health structure with the onus on male social education alongside teaching of sexual health to both genders will prove vital in stemming the tide of sex-related ignorance that has been allowed to pervade every rank of Indian society. This will subsequently shape the treatment, attitude to and long-term prospects of its poor.
What would you do if the only option for survival was selling your body, confidence and dignity? What if the man who bought you from your parents, took your virginity and then drove you to appointments every night with other men who would force you to perform sexual acts for money? Using first-hand interviews with prostitutes and their ‘fixer’ Didi based in a colony on the outskirts of Delhi where, shockingly, almost all women are sex workers, the sexual health myths, violence and secrecy that continue to surround this age-old employment are exposed.
Delhi’s Red Light Districts
Young mothers in Delhi, struggling to feed multiple children, are often forced into prostitution through desperation, with yet others condemned to it from birth. India, a dichotomous booming powerhouse of the world’s economy, is crippled by pockets of corruption which are sheltering vast ‘sex-worker colonies’ in its infamous red light districts.
Girls begin working after
‘marriage’ ... boys of the area
would purchase a wife from
a nearby village for several
thousands of rupees and bring
her home to start earning
income. They would then aid
their ‘wives’ in meeting clients
Sex work itself in India is not technically illegal – Indian law does not punish the act for persons over 18 years. Yet, according to the ‘Immoral Traffic Prevention Act,’ brothel-keeping, public soliciting or seducing for prostitution are considered to be an offence1. There are 70,000 registered Indian sex workers2, yet other estimates place that figure closer to 10 million3. Many are trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh, tricked into fake marriages, stolen from their home or sold by their families. Federal police estimate 1.2 million to be children4. Some can be seen on Mumbai’s roads in ‘zoo-like’ cages – they are slaves clinging to filthy iron bars. Inducted into a brutal, degrading way of life from an early age, they become shadows of their former selves, devoid of functioning and subjected to ritual rape.
Heavy-built and in bright traditional dress, Didi – or ‘sister’ – professed her job to be a local social worker. In fact Didi ‘assisted’ in fixing up the sex workers with their clientele, and was reticent to allow interviews of her charges unsupervised. In a cattle and muck strewn street, Didi thrust five stools into the middle of the road as mosquitoes encircled, ordering the women to sit and questioning to begin.
Traded as Children by Children
Didi noted that professional prostitution began in 1982, when nomadic tribes settled. Now, 85% of females in the colony are sex workers. Girls begin working after ‘marriage’, which Didi maintained was over 16. On reaching 13, boys of the area would purchase a wife from a nearby village for several thousands of rupees and bring her home to start earning income. They would then aid their ‘wives’ in meeting clients. The women would remain in the job till sixty, after which they would become
Didi confessed that
from all social strata
farmers and students.
Irrespective of rank, the
determining factor was
It was clear that parents who sold their daughters discharged their familial responsibility as soon as the child was removed. A dowry paid to the girl’s family ensured that the only attachments the girl would have were her adoptive husband and his family, or fellow sex workers. The women would then work for the rest of their lives to pay back the money spent on them. This type of ‘marriage’ forms the basis of a loophole in the enforcement of human trafficking law5.
One sex worker stated that she began working at 14, although mused that she wasn’t sure, saying “I’m not even sure how old I am”, guessing it to be 45. She was from a neighbouring district but had been here since the 1980s.
Didi contested that ‘of course’ the women were happy to do this job: being greedy for money, she said that this job allowed them ‘quick revenue’. A middle-aged sex worker shook her head in disagreement, but despaired “but what other job would I do now?” A lack of education, freedom of choice and job opportunity had left her trapped.
Class and Clientele
Due to neglect of girls, infanticides and feticides, there is a comparative surplus of men in India. Advocates of prostitution propose that, without it, this male-female discrepancy would lead to ‘mass rape of unmarried girls’ by sexually frustrated young men6. This ideology only serves to promote abuse of lower-class women as a form of ‘protection’ for the wealthy against the country’s more sexually depraved.
Didi confessed that customers come from all social strata including businessmen, truck-drivers, soldiers, farmers and students. Irrespective of rank, the determining factor was adequate cash-in-hand. Women would roam the main highway in groups, finding clients on the road, ‘servicing’ up to five men a night for as pitiable a profit as 100 rupees per person (£1.50). The fee is based on the sex-worker’s age.
Transactions boomed in particular during the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Due to a surplus of foreign clients, sex workers were driven to high-class hotels by their husbands to supply demand. Campaigners suggest that during the Games prostitution gangs, using escort agency titles as a front, purchased thousands of extra women. According to non-governmental organisations, there was also a huge rise in the number of minors lured by the promise of a job and eventually sold to pimps7.
Gender Stereotyping, Fear & Violence
The World Health Organisation states that sex workers are easy targets for brutality due to stigma. 80% of the 200 who enter prostitution per day in India do so against their will8. In a society where the value of human life in general is low, a sex worker’s perceived worth is miniscule.
When asked about violence, Didi denied its possibility. Questioned about what might happen if a woman declined to perform for a client, Didi retorted, “that would never happen!” Even when provided with evidence of sex workers who had been physically and mentally tortured by their captives, Didi still refused. “None of these women will fight with their husbands”, she said, “men hold all the power.” A sex-worker disagreed, admitting that she had often felt afraid and would be beaten if she did not agree to a client’s demands. Didi, overhearing, furiously refuted the claim and the worker retracted it immediately.
Throughout their lives these women have been bought and traded like property. Tied by marriage vows of confidentiality, the consequence of leaking ‘family secrets’ is unfathomable. Indeed, they are so downtrodden and repressed, feeling helpless and accustomed to their role in life, that the notion of complaining seems alien.
Research suggests that women are locked, starved, burned and tormented to comply with their dalal’s (pimp’s) demands. One such case is that of 13-year-old Nepali Mira, a brothel worker in Mumbai, who was promised a job as a domestic worker. Duped by her father, she was trafficked, beaten unconscious and, when she would not comply, she was stripped naked and had a rattan cane smeared with pureed red chilli peppers shoved in to her vagina before being raped9.
Throughout their lives these
women have been bought and
traded like property. Tied by
marriage vows of confidentiality,
the consequence of leaking
‘family secrets’ is unfathomable
It is clear that amidst India’s growing population and the startling numbers of poor, there exists a persistent stereotypical attitude to gender inequality, coupled with a culture of marital ownership and exploitation of uneducated women. Fuelled by the idea that sex workers somehow enjoy the job due to their own sexual desires, or choose it through avarice, a blind eye is turned to this abuse. There is clearly an urgent need for social education and alternative opportunity.
Some Indian welfare schemes do exist, such as the 2007 ‘Ujjwala’ project aimed at prevention, rescue and rehabilitation for victims of trafficking, which protect vulnerable sub-sections of society and encourage re-integration. Currently there are 96 Ujjwala projects set-up with 58 operational rehabilitation homes, but their impact is as yet unmeasured 10.
Babies, Birth-Control & HIV
In employment where venereal disease is a constant threat, Didi alluded to a HIV-testing facility down the road. However, sex workers did not use it through dread that diagnosis would end their working lives and leave them destitute. However, she professed that healthy eating and sleep prevented the women from acquiring any sexually transmitted infection (STI), and claimed there was no incidence of HIV in the colony.
Figures suggest that approximately 2.5 million people in India are living with HIV and that the prevalence amongst Indian sex workers is increasing11. Definitive statistics are not available, yet studies suggest that HIV sero-prevalence rates across tested sex workers from Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai are 50-90% positive12.
While discussing birth control with Didi, it was established the women did not use condoms due to the pain of friction, and hence had no physical protection against the acquisition or spread of STIs. To avoid pregnancy some consumed a mixture of Aryuvedic herbs from the chemist. However, Didi assured that as the sex workers often suffered from tuberculosis (TB), this greatly decreased their chances of pregnancy.
The sex-worker acknowledged that she had never seen a gynecologist, despite having five children, and was unable to explain anything about HIV, its spread or consequences. She did not use birth control and said that the other workers she knew did not give birth in hospital. A child born to a sex-worker would be delivered through a private local physician.
Didi alleged that it was rare that a sex-worker became pregnant by a client as they usually only bore the children of their husbands unless they needed extra income. She explained that the consumption of a concoction of carrot, water and an unknown toxic substance would easily cause a miscarriage without side effects. The sex-worker would then be back to employment 2-3 days later, with a similar time-period applicable for recovery post delivery.
The sex-worker acknowledged that
she had never seen a gynecologist,
despite having five children, and was
unable to explain anything about
HIV, its spread or consequences
Many sex workers are attended by unlicensed doctors, while some hospitals have been reported to refuse to treat women who are found to be HIV positive or developing AIDS symptoms out of fear or disgust13. Astonishingly, a magazine published in Mumbai argued that AIDS would benefit the country because it would ‘depopulate the vast underclass’, thus ridding India of its lower caste9.
So, according to Didi, despite no use of allopathic contraceptives, there was no incidence of any STIs, including HIV, and little unwanted pregnancy – yet rampant TB. With India succumbing to an AIDS epidemic, currently second only to the Republic of South Africa in the total number of its population living with HIV or AIDs, it is clear the impetus should be on preventative, unprejudiced social action now14.
Sexual Health Myths
For some, rather than practicing safe sex, HIV testing and treatment, obscure belief in cures for STIs such as washing genitals with engine oil or having sex with a virgin shockingly still persist15. The latter may in fact have propelled the rise in India’s child prostitution rates.
Forced castration of young boys using knives to sever sex organs has lead to the creation of some of India’s ‘eunuch’ population9. Following castration, artificial female body parts can be fashioned to pleasure men who hold the view that sex with a ‘hijra’ (or eunuch) can protect from HIV. Additionally, there are reports of infants with cradle cap being sold to brothel houses: sex with a scalp-eczema-afflicted prostitute is thought to bring good luck9.
Absurd sexual health myths surrounding STIs are perpetrated by inadequate knowledge and sexual taboo. Many Indian schools view sexual education as a cause of promiscuity and refuse to participate. Such superstition, in the case of both sex workers and their clients, is fuelling dangerous and morally contentious sexual practice.
What is a ‘Future’?
‘Future’ is a word seldom considered by these women. “These women don’t think about their future!” Didi explained. “After 30 they lose their bodies and become useless!”
For many, there is no hope of change. A sex-worker wearily offered that she would suffer only humiliation and maltreatment if people discovered her profession. However, she wished her children could go to school, get different jobs and escape the life she had been condemned to. Yet children of prostitutes are rarely able to flee this vicious cycle – in bigger cities such as Mumbai, it is estimated that 95% of the children of prostitutes become sex-workers9.
Obscure belief in cures for STIs
such as washing genitals with
engine oil or having sex with a
virgin shockingly still persist
Another sex-worker pointed to her eldest daughter who stood behind her cradling a female infant on her hip. She had begun servicing clients at the age of 14. Due to her young age, willowy frame and long hair, she was easily bringing in money for the family, and had a 1-year-old child in spite of being only 17.
Didi accepted that the main problem for the women of the area was a dearth of alternative employment opportunity. Hence, almost all of the women and girls of the area were still involved in the sex trade, despite a nearby school. She thought that people needed to see rewards for educating their daughters in the form of jobs for them following schooling.
Positive government attempts at ‘Education for All’ via the ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ scheme are designed to provide free and compulsory schooling up to 14 regardless of caste or creed, yet undoubtedly there are significant obstacles to its impact, including the fact that, by much of society, females are still not seen as necessary beneficiaries16.
An Urgent Need for Change
The continuation of uneducated, forced prostitution breeds the acquisition and transmission of STIs, promotes large families with mostly illiterate children, the use of risky abortifacients, alcohol abuse, child marriage and sexual and physical exploitation of women and minors.
Clearly a lack of appropriate sex-education, coupled with persistent disturbing myths, leads to dangerous reproductive health practices and the spread of HIV17.The social education of men in particular needs to be addressed, highlighting gender-equality, human-rights and the value of learning. Moreover there needs to be an increase in partnership between government-based efforts and NGOs working for the provision of prospects post-school, chiefly for the lower caste.
As an emerging power with burgeoning wealth, India has a unique opportunity to inform its sexually active youth and tackle the AIDS epidemic. A renewed focus on developing a comprehensive school-based sexual education programme, together with the development of educational and employment opportunities for girls born into poor families will help them to escape a life of enslaved sex work.
Unless gender equality, and openness in sexual health and education, is promoted from a young age, there is unlikely to be a move away from exploitation of women such as those in the sex colony, despite India’s new position as a leader on the world stage.
Priya Garg is a sixth year Medical Student at Imperial College London. She volunteered for three months at the Smile Foundation India.
 Nair P. M. & Sankar S. (2005) Trafficking in Women and Children in India. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
 Child & Women Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University (1999) India: Country Data on Prostitution and Trafficking in Women and Girls.
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 Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education & Literacy, Government of India (2011) Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – A programme for the universalisation of elementary education.
 Chadha M. (2007) Indian state bans sex education. BBC News Mumbai, April 3.