All you do there, is stare at the four walls, hoping to get out

Id rather die than go back there again Womans account of detention in Bengaluru state homeFile Photo: Image for representation only
news Gender Sunday, June 12, 2016 - 11:27

Although she was in the heart of Bengaluru city, for eight months Shubha could not see the outside world. It remained at the edge of her fingertips, behind locked doors and gates.

“You can’t see anything outside.” Gesturing with her hands to indicate the traffic on the road that the terrace overlooked, Shubha said: “You can see these buses here on the road, but there…” She shuddered for a moment, then said, “We all have the desire to live don’t we? A desire to live our lives a certain way? But all you do there, is stare at the four walls, hoping to get out.”

The state home for women on Hosur Road, run by the Department of Women and Child Development, is hellish. One has to cross three gates to reach the three-storied building that houses the women. Every night, the women are locked up inside to prevent them from running away. The window grates do not allow for much for a view, and the women are simply not let out of the building.

For the first 15 days, Shubha wore the same clothes she had been picked up in. “I just couldn’t bring myself to have a bath,” Shubha said. The bathing area was a common room. There were no individual bathrooms. “We were given 501 soap, the one that is used for washing clothes. We had to use that for bathing and washing our hair as well,” she said. There is no hot water to bathe even in winter.

At 6 am every morning, staff members would walk among women sleeping on the floor on a sheet of cloth in a big hall and wake them up. They often prodded them with sticks. “They keep saying things like ‘Do you wake up so late at home? Why do you do it here?’”

Then begin the long queues to use the toilets. There were just four between about 60 women. “You wait your turn, what else?”

After a quick wash, most women go to the dining hall for tea or coffee. After that, they do the work they’ve been assigned: cooking, sweeping and swabbing the floor, or cleaning the toilets.

Shubha was assigned cooking duty and would sort out the vegetables for the sambar, which was served for both lunch and dinner. “We made rice twice a day, but they didn’t give a damn about quantity. We could eat only how much they gave us. You couldn’t ask for a second helping if you were hungry. Often, the rice ran out and there wouldn’t be enough for everyone,” Shubha says.

The rest of the day, there was nothing to do. Between 3 and 5 pm the women could watch TV, but again, it would be a channel specified by the staff. “I watched TV for a couple of days. But then, I lost the desire to do even that. I just wanted to get out. We would eat, then sit around. Eat, then sit around. Then sleep. They don’t let you be, they keep abusing you,” Shubha says.

One of the most disturbing aspects of life there was that the state home even houses mentally ill or mentally challenged women. “We slept separately, but ate together. Often, some of them would get violent and try to hit or bite us. When this happened, one of the security guards would hit them to quieten them,” Shubha says. Those with lesser impediments were made to wash the vessels, Shubha says. Ironically, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences is next door.

Shubha was forced to live in the state home for eight months in 2013 after she was picked up by the Bengaluru police. Since she had been remanded to the home by the police under Section 17 of the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, there was no getting out without a court order.

Read: Sex, sex workers and the city – The double standards of desire and respectability in Bengaluru

In the seven years that she has been a street-based sex worker in Bengaluru, Shubha has never been harassed by the police. But the one time she did encounter them, she found she was jailed in a place that was not a prison, but worse, and ironically meant for her protection.

Getting out of a state home for a woman remanded by the police is very hard, especially if they have no one to help. Shubha didn’t. Thrown out of her house in Davangere town seven years ago by her abusive husband, Shubha arrived in Bengaluru along with her son with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Her son is in a government hostel for studies. She visits him once a month.

“He knew something was wrong, because I didn’t visit him all that time. Even after I was released, I couldn’t go meet him because I had no money. I couldn’t visit him empty-handed, so I waited for a few days,” Shubha said.

But she wasn’t entirely alone. After she enrolled her son in a hostel in Davangere, she returned to Bengaluru to work as a street-based sex worker. “One night, a woman who was also sitting by herself in Majestic approached me. She too was a street-based sex worker. I had no money for food that day, and she bought me some,” Shubha says.

It was through this friend that Shubha got in touch with a women’s group that works with sex workers. When they heard of this “brothel raid” they realized that a woman they knew was among those sent to the state home.

It took several months to get a release order since she had no family who could authorize their lawyer to take up her case. Even meeting anyone at the state home was unbelievably difficult.

“Every time I went to see her, she would simply stand at her gate with folded hands, tearfully begging me to get her released. After a while, I stopped looking at her because I couldn’t take it. Instead, I focused my energy on arguing with the staff to get the procedural work done,” says Girija, a member of Sadhana Mahila Gumpu.

When all attempts to get authorities to allow Shubha to sign the vakalat-nama (document that indicates who your advocate is) failed, her lawyer told the court that she was being denied her Constitutional rights. Luckily for Shubha, the court agreed with her advocate one day in 2014 and she is now free.

“I’m scared now, after this experience. But I have no choice. I have to look after my son. I’m often dejected that my life turned out this way, but there are so many people like me. Don’t they too go on?” Shubha says.

I asked her if she knew that sex work per se, was not actually illegal. She looked bewildered. “Why did they do this to me then?”

Another sex worker who was listening to the conversation on the terrace retorted: “The police know that it’s wrong to put you in the state home. But you don’t know that, do you?”

(The names of all women in the story, and details which could be used to identify Shubha have been changed to protect their privacy.)

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