This morning I read an inspiring article in the Guardian about Indian sex workers. The article was about a community of sex workers in Kolkata claiming rights and recognition with the help of a local organization called Vamp.
Vamp is a part of a larger organization called Sangram, fighting to stop state violence against women in sex work. Founded in 1997, Vamp advocates health issues and human rights of sex workers. In the last ten years Vamp has helped sex workers in Kolkata to improve their working conditions and encouraged more and more women to use condoms with their clients.
These are great improvements, but the most impressive change has been in attitudes. Prostitution, a profession which society generally sees as the disgusting and most inferior, is liberating many women from patriarchal oppression, from institutions like marriage.
“If I had been married, I would be HIV positive by now,” says Shaban, a sex worker and a Vamp supporter.
“Why? Because he would have had sex elsewhere and would have passed it on to me.”
In a traditional Indian marriage, the woman has no freedom and is unable to insist her husband to use a condom, for example. In her work Shaban sets the rules. She’s able to choose her clients, choose when she works. She has her own income and she’s able to educate her children. “I’m free as a bird,” she says.
The main message taken from this article is that Shaban and other women in the Kolkata sex worker community are not in the sex business out of desperation. Some of the women have been married and have tried other professions but eventually return to sex work by choice. The problem with sex work is the stigma and the language. As the columnist writes, if we see these women as “prostituted” we see them as less than humans, “incapable of determining their own destinies.” These women don’t want or need to be ‘saved.’
Shaban says, “Whatever rights you have as citizens in a society we also have those rights. What is the matter if we are women in prostitution? Are we not women?”
Watch a short video about Shaban and her community here.