Prostitution laws in India deem exchanging sex for money as legal, but classify brothel-based activities and trafficking as illicit.It is unlawful for a sex worker to solicit customers publicly and to live off the earnings of sex work.As the 1997 Manifesto of The First National Conference of Sex Workers claims, ‘even when aware of the necessity of using condoms to prevent disease, an individual may be compelled to jeopardise her health for fear of losing her clients, or may not be in a position to negotiate safer sex under exploitative madams or pimps.’ DMSC Research officer Dr.Protim Ray explains how the lack of laws targeting clients and pimps prevents the organisation from instating change through any other medium other than the sex workers themselves.The only way to improve the lot of sex workers is to first bring about a change in the social attitudes that confine them.Any form of development, whether monitoring and controlling the spread of HIV, or ensuring that sex workers’ children receive a formal education, must be preceded by widespread recognition of their social, emotional and material needs.
A lack of attention from the local and national governments has exacerbated their vulnerability, making them prime targets for abuse from local gangsters and police authorities.
Although there have so far been no cases of the disease spreading to India, health supervisors in Sonagachi are wary of the high number of West African customers that frequent the area, and the potential risks that this may entail. Smarajit Jana began a series of sessions for community members on the symptoms of Ebola.
His advice for workers to refuse sex to all West African clients, however, may fall on deaf ears in an industry where rape, coercion and exploitation are rife.
Punishments are meted out to sex workers only, with no laws seeking to penalise their clients or the individuals who manage and extort them.
I met Suvitha, a sex worker who has been living in Sonagachi for over twenty years, in a tiny room covered in flaky blue paint, attached to a courtyard complex. Nobody wants to help us when we get into trouble.” She sits cross-legged on the dusty floor, occasionally running her fingers through the numerous scars that run along her arms.