Tag Archive for VAMP

Why VAMP supports decriminalisation of sex work

sex-workers-rights

Any argument that seeks to define sex work as violence and exploitation forecloses discussion over the rights of people involved in sex work to pursue it as a livelihood. Law enforcement agencies, health authorities and clients often use punitive action to harass sex workers and violate their human rights. Decriminalisation will help sex workers address abusive or sub-standard or unfair working conditions instituted by state and non-state actors

By Meena Saraswathi Seshu and Aarthi Pai

Amnesty International, on 11 August, 2015, voted to recommend the full decriminalization of sex work and prostitution in order to protect the human rights of sex workers.

In the aftermath of Amnesty International’s vote, there has been a huge outcry from anti-sex work groups who contend that this move will legitimise exploitation within the sex trade industry. The critics do not agree that the intention behind Amnesty International’s resolution is to protect the human rights of sex workers and call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.

Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad [VAMP] a collective of women in sex work from western India welcomes the decision taken by Amnesty International. We support Amnesty’s assertion that states have an obligation ‘to reform their laws and develop and implement systems and policies that eliminate discrimination against those engaging in sex work’. VAMP works closely with SANGRAM a health and human rights NGO that I helped set up.

As a feminist activist for sex workers’ rights, my (Meena Saraswathi Seshu ) journey began in the movement against violence against women in India in the mid-1980s. I started working with deserted women and cases of dowry deaths in south Maharashtra. Sex workers were always ‘the other’ in every village.

In 1992 the HIV/AIDS epidemic forced Government of Maharashtra to initiate projects to work with ‘prostitutes’. SANGRAM plunged into this work and my world of the well-meaning activist was turned upside down. The involvement with this community of sex workers forced us to address the deep-rooted double standards and biases while dealing with issues related to sexuality and prostitution. It was impossible to ‘preach’ to a group of women who scorned the dominant value systems. The crying victims of the social workers’ imagination were not to be seen or heard.

As the understanding of prostitution as ‘exploitation, victimization, oppression, loose, immoral, illegal’, was broken into, it was not merely ideas and beliefs that had to be questioned but the language too had to be transformed. We had to revise our vocabulary to weed out words that reinforced the stigmatization and marginalization of women in sex work. The need to reclaim the notion of ‘womanhood’ also became necessary since this sanctified moral space refused to acknowledge the fact that the very identity (of being a woman) was obliterated by the “whore, harlot, veshya” image. If women were not “good” then they had no right to be considered women.’ It thus became a matter of claiming citizenship itself.

What caught our imagination was the notion that casual sex could be a physical act stripped of emotion, can be initiated by women, can be used in a commercial context and even be pleasurable. Besides, many adult women seemed to appear in the communities, out of ‘nowhere’ apparently, comfortable with this notion of sex within a commercial context with multiple men. This challenged our initial idea that no woman could and would enter sex work on her own and the notion that all women were forced and trafficked into sex work. It was apparent that many women were not there by force, deception or in debt bondage and were freely walking in and out of the communities.

The argument that decriminalisation will increase exploitation by legalising pimps and brothel owners is made with a very limited understanding of commercial sex

We, therefore, realised that the argument that decriminalisation will increase exploitation by legalising pimps and brothel owners is made with a very limited understanding of commercial sex. Punitive laws that criminalise and punish sex work act as instruments through which sex workers are harassed and regularly have their human rights violated by law enforcement agencies, health authorities and clients. In many countries, sex workers are a primary means by which the police meet arrest quotas, extort money, and extract information.

Police wield power over sex workers in the form of threats of arrest and public humiliation and use condoms as evidence of illegal activity, undoing years of effective public health promotion and campaigning around STIs and HIV. Forced testing for HIV is commonplace, along with breaches of due process and privacy. Sex workers in many jurisdictions are the targets of frequent harassment, physical and sexual abuse, and forced “rehabilitation”. Where sex work is illegal, sex workers often feel there is little they can do to address the violations perpetrated against them and are deterred from accessing health services for fear of further stigma and abuse.

Decriminalisation will help sex workers address abusive or sub-standard or unfair working conditions instituted by state and non-state actors

Branding decriminalisation as an attempt to legalise pimps and brothel keepers does not help sex workers in their struggles for rights, including the rights to health, and justice.

The term “third parties” used by the sex workers rights movement recognizes the diverse third party working relationships that sex workers negotiate. In contrast, the term, “pimp” is a stigmatizing racial stereotype. It posits sex workers as victims rather than as workers, denying their agency. Sex workers can be employees, employers or participate in a range of other work related relationships. Framed as targeting exploitative working relationships of sex workers, third party laws are also used to target the personal relationships of sex workers, as well as workplaces. The criminalisation of sex workers’ personal relationships amounts to the criminalisation of sex workers themselves, while the criminalisation of workplaces mitigates against sex workers ability to protect themselves from HIV and other STIs, and gain labour rights.

In environments where aspects of sex work are criminalised, for instance, soliciting, living off the earnings of a sex worker, managers. sex workers face discrimination and stigma which undermine their human rights, including to liberty, security of the person, equality, and health. Evidence suggests that sex workers’ risk of HIV infection is inextricably related to their marginalized and illegal status, which drives their work underground and increases police abuse and exploitation.

According to UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, “even where services are theoretically available, sex workers and their clients face substantial obstacles to accessing HIV prevention, treatment care and support, particularly where sex work is criminalized.” In countries where sex work is decriminalized, there is evidence that violence directed at sex workers is reduced, relations between sex workers and the police are improved, and access to health services is increased.

The reason why VAMP supports Amnesty International in the decriminalisation demand is because sex workers from VAMP want States to actively seek to empower the most marginalised in society, including through supporting the right to freedom of association of those engaging in sex work, establishing frameworks that ensure access to appropriate, quality health services and safe working conditions and through combating discrimination or abuse based on sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression. This echoes the voices of sex workers around the world who argue that states are responsible for proactively protecting fundamental rights and call on them to undertake measures that will help protect, respect, and fulfill these rights for all.

Any argument that seeks to define sex work as violence and exploitation forecloses discussion over the rights of people involved in sex work to pursue it as a livelihood. It exacerbates the lack of legal remedies to redress violence and erodes the efforts of sex workers fighting for legal and social recognition of their rights to dignity and livelihood. Sex work is work, and sex workers should not be defined as either criminals or victims, such an analysis harms not only sex workers but all women.

Meena Saraswathi Seshu is the co -founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, an organisation working with marginalised women in rural Maharashtra, India. She was instrumental in collectivising women in sex work to form VAMP (Veshya Anyaya Mukti Parishad)

Aarthi Pai is an activist and lawyer. She is the Director of Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation, (CASAM) a unit in SANGRAM that focuses on laws, policies and structures that impact sex workers and sexual minorities

Kamala Maushi: Salute to a proud Devadasi

Kamala-Maushi

In memory of a proud Devadasi, a relentless activist who fought for sex workers rights, a natural leader and a compassionate comrade – Kamala Maushi (11-2-1950 to 11-2-2015)

By Meena Seshu

“Unlike gharguti [household] women I am married to a Goddess! In my culture, I have become a man. I am a Kaka (paternal uncle) to my nieces and nephews! All property in the house will be distributed equally among my brothers and me. Upper caste people in the village have to treat me with respect,” said Kamalabai Pani, explaining the Devadasi custom.

I met Kamalabai in April 2000 when she came to the office of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) office in Sangli with Bhimawa Gollar. They were best friends: both ‘big’ Gharwalis (Brothel owners) in Sangli. They came because Sidharam a local thug had targeted Kamalabai, pulled her out of a running auto rickshaw and physically assaulted her. They approached us to intervene because the police refused to file a case against Sidharam. We went and filed the case together and from then on all our lives changed.

Kamala Maushi was proud to be a Devadasi. She always believed that she was in a much better position compared to married women, because she felt more in ‘control’ of her life. She loved her jewellery and wore it for almost any occasion. “I am not a poor woman,” she often said.

Her understanding about the Devadasi system defied argument. She was perplexed by the opposition to the Devadasi system. Her argument was that she was superior because she was married to a goddess and thus would never be a widow; she was considered a ‘male’ in the family; she was the head of her household; she had control over her earnings and her property; her children were her own and did not belong to the man who fathered them; she was allowed to have multiple sexual partners among other freedoms.

She disagreed with the analysis that the Devdasi system was established in order to ensure that upper caste and upper class men always had access to women from the Dalit castes with societal sanction. She argued that in her own personal life she had ‘kept’ and had access to many men from all castes and classes of society. She paid to keep them and left them when she wanted to do so. Her present malak (live in lover) was an upper caste landed farmer who she ‘maintained’ till her death.

Kamalabai was a natural leader who had the respect of various levels of people she interacted with, District Magistrate, Police, Dean of the Civil hospital, Municipal Councillors, MLAs, lawyers, NGO leaders, Trade Union leaders, community leaders, feminist leaders both national and international. When the Collector of Sangli had a meeting on income generation projects for sex workers she told him, “Sir, the government should have income generation for persons who are unable to earn on their own. Sex Workers already have an income.” The DM immediately instructed his officers to stop the compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers, in Sangli.

Her arguments with police officers and health officials in Sangli were legendary: “Are we not human?” is a question she asked every official who violated the rights of sex workers

Her understanding of the right to be treated as a human being irrespective of the legality of her work (brothel keeping is illegal) never failed to impress me. She argued that criminalisation of her work did not give law enforcement the right to violate her dignity.

At the community level she coined the term “Anyay sehan karnar nahi”. Will not tolerate injustice! She mobilised to root out money lenders who charged exorbitant interest, in Gokulnagar first and then on the idea spread to all the areas in which the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the sex workers’ collective, was active. A staunch supporter of collectivisation, as an effective method in the struggle for rights, she nurtured many a young leader in VAMP. She talked about rights of young women in sex work to both brothel owners and third parties involved in the management of sex work.

She played a huge part in stopping minor girls from entering the business. Talking to brothel owners, explaining issues of consent, deception, debt bondage and economic exploitation within the trade she convinced her opponents that trafficking was an injustice against the community and fought to oust dalals (agents) and money lenders.

The most endearing trait of this indomitable woman was her ability to forgive her enemies. She repeatedly told us all to control our anger. “Anger kills the collective spirit,” she always said. VAMP and SANGRAM will miss her wisdom, kindness and warmth. We only hope we have the strength to continue this struggle that means so much to all of us.

Kamala Maushi, Zindabad!

Pregnant Sex Worker Brutally Assaulted by Satara Cops

Sex workers India

Women’s groups in the country are demanding stern action against the policemen in Satara who assaulted a pregnant sex worker causing a miscarriage

By Team FI

Women’s organisations in the country are outraged that even after one month no action has been taken against the policemen who brutally assaulted a pregnant sex worker in Satara, Maharastra, causing a miscarriage. The incident occurred on 2nd  April,  around 7.30 pm, when Anu Mokal, who was four months pregnant, and Anjana Ghadge were bringing dinner for their friend who was admitted in the civil hospital.

When they were passing the Satara bus stand area, senior Police Inspector Dayanand Dhome started shouting at them using abusive language. When they told him that they were taking food for their friend, he allegedly called them liars. Dhome and his subordinates started beating Anu and her friend Anjana. Dhome repeatedly kicked them and said that women like Anu are a ‘shame’. Her pleas that she was four months pregnant fell on deaf ears. Anu and Anjana were detained and put in a lockup.

On the following day they were produced before the magistrate and were released after a payment of Rs 1200 fine for an offense not known to them. They were taken to the civil hospital by members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad [VAMP] an organisation that works among sex workers and Anu received medication.  However, on 5th April, she suffered a miscarriage.

Anu has filed a complaint against Inspector Dhome and his colleagues with the Satara Superintendent of Police M. M. Prasanna. SANGRAM, (an organisation that runs the Maharashtra State AIDS Society HIV/AIDS prevention project with women in sex work and sexual minorities in Satara District), has also sent a written complaint to the Home Minister R.R.Patil, SP M.M  Prasanna, and the Regional DIG Tukaram Chavhan, demanding that action be taken against Dayanad Dhome and others, but to no avail. DSP Prasanna told a delegation from VAMP on 30th April that an enquiry has been instituted but he did not commit as to when one can expect its result.

Sign online petition Justice For Anu Mokal

Sex Work: Speaking up for human rights

sex workers

By VAMP

Sex workers in a small town in Maharashtra, India, march for change on 3rd March, International Sex Workers Rights Day.

Either reviled or pitied by the state, society and social workers, sex workers – female, male and transgender – have now dared to break out of the victim mode and demand that they be seen as real human beings with rights, needs, fears, hopes and aspirations, just like anyone else. After decades of struggle, they are now slowly beginning to be recognized as persons and citizens.

Till date, for feminism, prostitution has symbolized oppression, victimization and the exploitation of womanhood. Feminism looks at prostitution through the framework of a rigid understanding of patriarchy, viewing it as objectifying women’s bodies, and as the commercialization of sex. Hence, for feminists, prostitutes are victims of unequal power relations between the sexes. No ‘real’ woman will agree to do sex work because if she does so she is living under the illusion of ‘false consciousness’. We hear activists talk of prostitution as ‘female sexual slavery’ and ‘sexual victim-hood’. These perceptions echo the early reformist discourse, which views women as needing to be protected, preferably by laws, from lustful men.

A complex issue that has troubled feminists is the question of consent. The women’s movement has raised the issue of consent in sexual relations mainly within the domestic / marital sphere. In prostitution, adult women consent to exchange sexual services for money, but this is disputed and the ability to consent is contested.

This is because feminism posits prostitution as violence, which forecloses any discussion over whether women can actively choose sex work as a livelihood option. Many women report entering sex work because of ‘majboori’ or difficult circumstances, mainly poverty, and this leads them

Sex workers Pride march India

Sex workers pride march : Photo courtesy VAMP

to think of sex work as a way of livelihood and thus work. But, without finding out the multiplicity of experiences, feminists have held that women are trafficked into sex work because of their vulnerability as women. Here, exchanging sexual services for money [sex work] is conflated with selling of a body to another [trafficking].

The basic tenet of anti-trafficking rhetoric is that bodies are unwillingly ‘sold’ and transported across borders. This dovetails perfectly with the feminist argument that prostitution involves no choice and is the major cause for trafficking. Trafficking is not viewed as an issue of poverty that causes many women to willingly enter into agreements with traffickers because they desperately seek livelihoods, escape from home-grown violence, poverty, conflict, or displacement – in short, a better life.

The movement to stop trafficking, by feminist and other groups favoring abolition, is therefore framed as the necessity to stop prostitution.The debates around trafficking also bolster the idea of sex work as violence. Violence against women (VAW) has focused on domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, acid throwing etc. When VAW is conflated with sex work, it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees.

For example, most sex workers report that they experience violence and exploitation by and large at the hands of police and petty local thugs, rather than in sexual relations with clients. It is conveniently forgotten that a greater incidence of VAW occurs in marriages than between sex workers and their clients. Violence that does occur within the field of sex work is used to justify severe action against the sex work industry such as closure of brothels and ‘clean ups’.

The casting of the prostitute as the victim has engendered several positions on prostitution. Because women are conceptualized as ‘slaves’, one approach is to put a stop to prostitution in the literal sense – by demolishing it. The State and other establishments, such as NGOs, often use this abolitionist approach.

Sex workers pride march: Photo courtesy VAMP

Reformism, another feminist position, posits that women in prostitution need reforming because, as women who do sex work, they have no ‘character’. Rescue and rehabilitation strategies are used here. The assumption is that women need saving from sex work and then rehabilitation by giving them alternate jobs.

A third strategy, the regulatory approach, relies on laws. This does not take the stand of banning prostitution but rather accepts that prostitution is here to stay and needs regulation. Laws like the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 (ITPA) in India is a reflection of this approach.

Yet another approach is the rights-based approach – which is silent on the merits or morality of sex work, per se, but contends that women in sex work should have the same rights and entitlements as any other citizen, and the State must act as the duty bearer of these rights.

In India, prostitution is neither legal nor illegal. It has no status. We consider sex work as work, as a business, and do not consider ourselves as either criminals or victims.

In order for the stigma of discrimination to end, and fundamental rights extended to us to carry out our livelihood, societal perception must be transformed. To make the big change happen, small steps must be taken. To speak, to stand up and be counted is a step forward in the campaign for rights – the right to dignity, to work, to earn a livelihood, to education, to health and leisure – rights that are available to all citizens.

VAMP ( (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad) based in Sangli, Maharashtra is an organisation for sex workers.