“My body, my business. Is that too much to ask for?” questions Kokila, President of Vadamalar Federation of sex workers which is based in Madurai. Kokila has been a sex worker for 20 years now, and she’s also slowly nurturing herself as an activist. She envisions a world where the bodily autonomy of women becomes a reality.
Unionisation has been used by various social groups as an effective tool in rights based movements. For more than a decade now, sex workers in Tamil Nadu have used this strategy to collectively fight for their social justice.
Vadamalar Federation is a network of community based organisations (CBOs) or ‘sangams’ for female sex workers in seven districts in Tamil Nadu. The Federation has collectivised about 550 women in the state who voluntarily do sex work for a living. In a climate where sex workers are either placed under moral reprimand or pitied for being oppressed, women in Vadamalar believe that based on their life circumstances, they have consciously made their choice to be in sex work. Condemning the moral policing by society that essentially de-humanises them, they advocate for their decriminalisation and dignity.
Selvi, a sex worker from Tirunelveli, says “I’m not dependent on anyone in this world. I work harder and harder every day to make my income. So, I cannot tolerate the fact that the world looks at me like I’m a criminal. Vadamalar Federation will keep breathing until sex workers are allowed to breathe fresh air.”
Education through collectivisation
Not all sex workers may be activists who want to change the world. Some women keep their worlds small, essentially their family and themselves. But, collectivisation seems to have something for everybody. Many sex workers live a life of toil to make their ends meet, yet find time to actively engage in activities of the Federation.
Geetha, a sex worker in Madurai, explains, “Even when I’m absolutely exhausted because of continuous work, I’m enthusiastic about attending Federation meetings. I used to be filled with guilt and disgust because of the work I do. But, now it does not matter what society thinks. I’m living with dignity, earning my own money to raise my son.”
When asked what caused this change in perspective Geetha explains, “I have immense potential to think and rationalise. Through our Federation, I have attended several trainings that have made me understand that there is nothing wrong in earning an income through sex work because it has supported my livelihood better than any other job. But, I have also realised that I’m much more than just a woman who does sex work.”
Vadamalar Federation works in partnership with South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP) and other human rights organisations all over India, seeking support for capacity building in areas that the sex workers think may benefit their lives. As of today, women in Vadamalar have sought capacity building support in areas such as legal awareness, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and counselling for mental health.
Kokila describes how she uses the knowledge she has gained through such trainings in her everyday life.
“I educate every single client I attend to, about sexual health and the possible risks they may be exposed to. Often men are surprised that I have so much knowledge. Condom negotiation is much simpler this way. My clients make informed choices to be safe when they are with me,” she says.
Kokila recalls a time when she was habitually inebriated and merely existed. Today, she stands tall and confident as the President of Vadamalar Federation, a social activist and a leader. “I was found in a brothel home in Thiruvannamalai and made to join Deepam Pengal Sangam. I hope the life of every sex worker changes like mine,” she says.
Skill building is key
Skill building is one of the key perks of collectivisation. A noteworthy achievement is that sex workers in Nagercoil have been chosen for the Para-Legal Volunteer (PLV) scheme under the Kanyakumari District Legal Services Authority (DLSA). As Para-Legal Volunteers with a government licence, sex workers plan to engage in peer-education where legal awareness and support are imparted to all sex workers in Tamil Nadu.
“Kanmani Pengal Sangam has built a lot of capacity in me to speak confidently and fight for my rights. But confidence alone is not enough to address people in power. As a para-legal volunteer recognised by the government, I will be able to negotiate with the police using legal terms. More and more sex workers should be able to confidently address the police when they are unlawfully held,” says Prema, a sex worker from Kanyakumari who has been selected for the PLV scheme.
Such skill building is essential to prevent the exploitation and unlawful violence by law enforcement. The clandestine nature of their work makes sex workers dread law enforcement officers as foes, rather than protectors. Constant raids and criminalisation by police personnel compounded by the inability to negotiate in such situations make sex workers live in absolute fear. As a solution, Vadamalar Federation has established a dispute redress team within each CBO which sex workers in custody can immediately contact for help. This team constitutes sex worker leaders who are point persons to ensure that sex workers in custody are not treated unlawfully and that they are given legal and social support as necessary.
“Often when sex workers are arrested, they are not given any information on the charges against them. Sometimes FIRs are filed as though they were in possession of marijuana. As part of the dispute redress team from a registered CBO, I have negotiated with the police and even arranged bail for sex workers in custody,” says Meena, a sex worker from Theni.
By virtue of the growing feminist movement, female sex workers want complete onus of their own lives. ‘Sex work is work’ is their motto, and sex workers in Vadamalar Federation do not want to be victimised or pitied, but rather want only what is owed to them- their right to liberty.
“We condemn trafficking for sex. We ensure that children below the age of 18 are not in sex work. But, we are consenting adults who have chosen to do sex work like all others who have made their career choices. This is our human right,” says Banu, sex worker from Theni.
While the sex workers’ movement is gradually growing stronger, Geetha seeks support from the public as she believes that unless society sheds its conservative moral lens, human rights of sex workers can never be a reality. “We would like the public to acknowledge and understand our cause because with their help, it is possible for us to live normal lives.”
Janani Venkatesh works for South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP), advocating for decriminalisation of sex work and sex workers.