‘Girija isn’t her real name. Neither she, not Syeda (name changed) want to talk about sex work. “We organized a public hearing two months ago. The state government did nothing. Someone cried. We don’t want their sympathy, we want them to listen to us,” Syeda says. Both would rather talk about how they and others have managed to lessen the violence against street-based sex workers, and it has been a long, difficult battle, where the rules are constantly changing. But there have been victories too.
“When I first came to Bangalore, I was raped by three policemen. One of them has died, the other is a head constable, and the third is a single-star (assistant sub-inspector). They had warned me against telling anyone. Today, they salute me and ask me to take a seat,” Girija told this reporter two years ago.
Six years after she began to do sex work, Girija enrolled with an NGO called Samrakshana, which spread awareness about the use of condoms.
Two years later, in 1998, she quit sex work. “I felt I could make a living without it. What I earned (around Rs 2,000 a month) wasn’t enough, but friends would feed me, help me (financially). Now the police refer to me as an ex-sex worker, just to insult me in front of others,” she says.
Her friend Syeda, a part-time sex worker adds: “You know how senior IAS officers train juniors, the police do the same. When we go to the police station now, and they tell their juniors ‘See, the SAT has come,’ or ‘the leather company has come – a reference to flesh trade’ or ‘See, what she was earlier, and now she comes like a madam’. The senior officers always take off their caps and tuck it under their arms when they talk like this.”
“It was Dasara time, in 2000 I think. I was boarding an autorickshaw alone to go home one night when the police arrested me. I had done nothing wrong. The court had holidays so I was kept in police lock-up for eight days,” Syeda said.
Members of Samrakshana, women’s rights group Vimochana, Bengaluru-based legal advocacy group Alternative Law Forum (ALF) and others found out about it and obtained bail for her. “That’s how I met Girija. The next morning, they told me I had done nothing wrong, and I decided to challenge the case.”
“Sometimes we have to go with the men in autos, or in theatres,” Syeda says. This puts them at the mercy of their clients and increases the risk of violence from their clients, Mitra adds.
Dealing with the police is a hydra-headed monster and the myth of Sisyphus combined. Chop off one head and another appears; win one battle only to repeat it again. “Three-fourths of the violence is gone, but they still put petty cases on us. Just when we get the local inspector in line (to treat us without violence), he gets transferred and then we have to start all over again,” Syeda says.’