Sunday, December 28, 2008

The twilight zone


Many retired sex workers in Kochi have been abandoned by their families. With no savings, and no proper place to stay, they are leading bleak lives

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, several years ago Revathi was looking for clients near the KSRTC bus stand at Kochi. Two men approached her, gave her Rs 500 and said they wanted to have sex with her. She agreed and asked to go to the toilet. On the way she slipped the money to a shopkeeper inside the terminal.

The men took her to a half-constructed building. “I had sex with the two men, when suddenly another six men materialised,” says Revathi. All of them raped her and then the man who gave her Rs 500 asked for the money back.

“I told him I did not have it with me,” she says. The men got angry and rained her with blows. She began bleeding from the nose. Finally, she was thrown into a roadside drain.

“It was a terrible moment,” she says. “At that time my father was suffering from cancer. I had to buy medicines. How could I return the Rs 500? And why should I?”

Revathi got married at 16 and by the time her husband abandoned her at 22, she had three children: two boys and a girl. Money was hard to come by and she decided to become a sex worker.

“During the early years I would have ten to twelve clients a day,” she says. Revathi would get paid between Rs 50 to Rs 100 per client. “I was young and good-looking,” she says. As the years went by the rates went up. A few years ago, she was getting between Rs 300 to Rs 500.

The money was much needed to run the family, but there were drawbacks. Because she was working in a public place like a bus stand, several people saw her, including her neighbours. “They would come and tell my sons, ‘Hey, I saw your mother at the bus stand selling her body,’” she says.

The sons felt ashamed and said, “Amma don’t spoil the family name. Please do some other work.” But it was too late to find another job which provided the same income.

“All the money I earned I spent it on the family,” says Revathi. However, when the children got married and started families of their own, the relationship with their mother broke down and the inevitable happened: Revathi was asked to leave.

Today, she lives on the streets in Aluva with another woman. “I have my bath in the Periyar river and do my ablutions in the toilet at the bus stand,” she says.

And even now, in her late fifties, with two front teeth missing, drunken men, who are unable to find a younger sex worker, jump on her.

“It is rape,” she says. “But what can I do? I cannot complain to the police because they will harass me even more.” On rare occasions, a man might fling a hundred rupee note at her.

There are many ageing sex workers in their fifties and sixties who face untold hardships now that their careers have come to an end.

Take the case of Bindu, 65. Today her two sons are married, but Bindu is unable to get along with her daughters-in-law. “I used to scold them when they made some mistakes and they did not like it,” she says. “So I walked out.”

She stays in a single room in Athani, about 25 kms from Kochi.

Bindu became a sex worker when her husband abandoned her when the sons were small. “What option did I have?” she says.

At that time she met some friends who were in the trade. “They said, ‘Do you want to starve or look after your family?” And so Bindu started work and did it for more than 30 years.

Today, she earns her living by selling pickles, door to door, but earns only Rs 50 per day. The monthly rent for her room is Rs 750.

“I am unable to make ends meet,” she says. “Some nights I just drink warm water and go to sleep. Nobody is there to care for me. I am all alone in the world.”

Parvathy is also alone. Her mother, who was her only companion, died recently. Her brothers broke ties with her a couple of decades ago. She is 54, but is HIV positive.

“I stopped having sex because I don’t want to spread the disease,” she says. She works as a maid for a bachelor who is aware she is a former sex worker. “But I have not told him about my HIV status,” she says. “The pay is low but, at least, I have a roof over my head.”

Parvathy’s husband had abandoned her, but she has no children. “I got into the trade because my mother was unwell and there was no money to pay for medicines,” she says. “But I have no regrets. At that time it was the right decision although I might die sooner than later.”

Saroja is more resilient. She is 62 and works as a field worker for an NGO distributing condoms to sex workers and gives talks about the dangers of Aids.

“I became a sex worker at 28,” she says. “I had a lover but he abandoned me. I had more than 10 clients a day. In those days we would get Rs 50 per session. And that was enough. It is only now that money has no value and hence you need a lot to satisfy your basic needs.”

A carefree Saroja blew up the money on clothes, lipstick, watching movies and buying gifts for friends. “Now I have only my body left,” she says. “And nobody wants that now.”

So what advice would they give to those who are keen to enter the trade? “I would discourage girls from entering the profession because you meet all sorts of cruel and horrible men,” says Revathi. “I have been gang-raped many times. And don’t forget the harassment from the police.”

Says Bindu: “Nowadays you can earn as well as a labourer or a maid.”

But Saroja is cynical. “There is no point giving any advice because they will do it anyway,” she says. “Can you earn Rs 1500 a day by doing a regular job? So there is no comparison. If I tell them to stay away, they will say, ‘Look who is giving advice. Why don’t you mind your own business? And let us lead our lives the way we want to.’”

But for those elderly women who are unable to lead lives on their own terms, help is at hand. Maniamma is a tall, slender woman with a loud voice and a forceful temperament. She is the coordinator for the Swantham Service Society, an organisation for sex workers. Now the society is planning to set up a dormitory for retired sex workers.

“The idea came up because these women have no money or a place to stay,” she says. “There is nobody to look after them.” The society is preparing a proposal to submit to the state government.

“We are keen to render assistance,” says Dr. Usha Titus, secretary, social welfare, of the state government. “But I will need to study the proposal first and see whether it fits in with our rules.”

Maniamma does not know it but there is already an international precedent.

In November, 2006, the Mexican government started ‘Casa Xochiquetzal’, a home for retired sex workers, at Mexico City. This is the first such facility in Latin America, and to get admission an applicant must be at least 65 and living in penury.

“Previously, we would say, ‘In the end, we will end up in jail,’” says Carmen Munoz, former sex worker and the home’s director. “Today I say, ‘In the end, we will end up in peace,’ because this house is a place of peace.”

Maniamma is hoping to set up a similar ‘place of peace’ in Kochi.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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