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In Conversation with Meena Seshu:  Founder, SANGRA

Ms. Meena Seshu is an activist for sex workers’ rights. She is the founder of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) which is aimed at empowering sex workers. She created Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a collective of people insex work. Seshu is based in Sangli, Maharashtra,and SANGRAM and VAMP work in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

During the mid 1980s, Ms. Seshu was an activist looking to stop brutality against women in Maharashtra state. Her real focus in the following decade was HIV/AIDS as it took a destructive toll in the poor regions where she worked. Her experience showed her that organising into collectives is a useful method for bringing about empowerment, so she adopted this in the brothels she visited.

This led to the setting up of SANGRAM set up in 1992 and Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a collective led by sex workers, set up in 1996. Ms. Seshu’s work is focused on decriminalisation of sex work. She believes rehabilitation efforts can be misguided:

“In VAMP we have a slogan: “save us from saviours”. These saviours are saving us for themselves, they’re not saving us for ourselves. If they had come to save us for ourselves, maybe they’d help us get better working conditions, they wouldn’t use the most oppressive arm of the State, the police, to “help us”

Even though prostitution is no longer considered as the most extreme kind of moral depravity a woman can engage in, but it is still widely thought that it is at the very least morally defective, if not unpleasant and unacceptable. In this interview, we discuss about the flawed interpretation of exploitation being synonymous to Sex Work, and how we, on the outside feel the need to rescue the sex workers. We scrutinised the intricacies of the The Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care & Rehabilitation) Bill, (2021), the interventions of the organisation that attempt to address the challenges faced by the sex workers and the miscontrued approaches of rehabilitation.

Tavleen: Could you please lay out the major events in your life that paved your decision of setting up SANGRAM and working with sex workers?

Meena: When I first entered a brothel in rural India, I was expecting a melodramatic scene from a Bollywood film, in which poor helpless women were being victimised by brutal, aggressive men. I soon found out that the reality was different. These women were, for the most part, in control of their lives, but through a combination of prejudice and fear included being mistreated by every section of society. SANGRAM’s initial remit, when it was set up in 1992 was more concerned with ensuring that sex workers didn’t spread HIV through migrant workers to “good women”. It eventually evolved into a more enlightened entity through the teachings I gained from the sex working community in Sangli. I had to work hard to gain the trust of the women I was working with. I grew up in a wealthy part of Mumbai, and the larger women’s’ movement was not listening to women, especially sex workers. In 1992, sixteen women sex workers from Gokulnagar, with the tacit support of some of the madams who ran the brothels, formally became peer educators for the HIV/AIDS prevention work in SANGRAM, which catalysed the emergence of the sex worker movement in Maharashtra which was women-centred, process-oriented and empowerment-focused. In 1995, the collective registered independently as VAMP (Veshya AIDS Muqabla Parishad, then changed to Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad in 1998).

Tavleen: What is the key take away that you would suggest to any individual who too wishes to engage with and rehabilitate this vulnerable group?

Meena: Sex workers do not need to be rehabilitated. I too, initially approached my work as a “rescue” attempt, and I was slowly educated by the sex worker community. The one thing I’ve always believed in is that we don’t listen to women enough, even in the feminist movement. With sex workers, we don’t listen to them at all. For many, prostitution is synonymous with exploitation, existing for the benefit of men so that they can have a better sexual life. However, by listening to sex workers themselves, I see this interpretation as flawed. In reality, it is for these women to make money. It is a distinction that is very clear to the women. The key takeaway is always to listen to the community you are working with- they already have solutions, you just have to support them. They are not victims.

Tavleen: A lot of Sex workers, NGOs, and community-based organisations feel that the recently proposed Bill {The Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021} still views prostitution with a cultural and moral lens. Despite the fact that the citizens of India have the right to practise any profession, why do you think the Bill is criminalising sex work and the choice of sex work as a profession? What would you say to be the core reason behind the belief that sex work cannot be taken up voluntarily?

Meena: India has had a long, diverse history of multiple cultures, realities, histories and economies, and this includes the life of the institution of sex work(ers), linked with various castes, gender, religion, class and the arts. Over the past many decades, constant stigmatisation, marginalisation and legal frameworks that do not centre those it aims to ‘protect’, stemming from colonial, urbanised and globalised understandings of morality, work and livelihood have homogenised these realities and increasingly devalued and criminalised them. So much so that people in prostitution and sex work have, in dominant narratives become the ‘fallen’, ‘bad’ women that challenge ‘good’ institutions of marriage. This has made sex work inseparable from the criminal offence of trafficking, defined as ‘the activity of buying and selling goods or people illegally’.

Tavleen: The Bill is believed to be largely silent on rescue protocols except the “reason to believe” by a police officer. Do you believe there is a concern of forcible rescue of adult individuals who may have been trafficked in involuntary sex labour and do not want to be rescued in the absence of a specified rescue protocol?

Meena: The experiences of sex workers picked up during raids reveal that this strategy rarely addresses the issue of trafficking, but instead results in large-scale human rights violations, and in fact, increases vulnerabilities such as falling into debt bondage and other exploitative practices. We have released a report, called ‘Raided’ that provides answers to some crucial questions on how forced raids affect sex workers, their families and livelihood. The evidence we have collected in this study indicates that rescue and restore missions have not only proven to be indiscriminate, violent, and destructive of invaded communities, but have also been ineffective in addressing the problem of minors in sex work and adult persons forced into sex work. Generations of police raids have not been able to combat the menace of trafficking in persons. The only solution comes from the collectives of vigilant sex workers who are organizing themselves to root out the violence and abuse in their own lives and that of minors and women trafficked into sex work. In any community, the idea that a rescue can be orchestrated from the ‘outside’ using an oppressive police force that incites violence rather than protection and compounds the problem. The strategy of raid and rescue without the participation of women in sex work from that particular brothel or community offers no protection to the women forced into sex work.

Tavleen: Does the fact that the representation of women in the police force is a dismal 10%, likely to affect the rescue protocol as a large part of the red-light districts are female-oriented?

Meena: Please remember the police are trained to take orders. So lower-level police persons will not really change matters at the grassroots. We need 50% of the police force to be women to make a difference. Sex Work is a moral issue so it is very subjective as far as individual policing is concerned. Therefore, it needs political guidance to change policy, laws and policing at the grassroots.

Tavleen: There are concerns around community-based rehabilitation programmes as provided in the Bill. Could you shed light on some of the rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives by your organisation ?

Meena: VAMP has developed a systematic approach to prevent and respond to forced and minor entry into sex work. Until 2000, there were several underage sex workers in the communities VAMP works with. Today there is a comprehensive system, monitored by the sex workers themselves, to ensure that no trafficked women or underage girls are working within the community. Every mohalla (site) in which VAMP works, has a committee, which acts as a dispute redress mechanism amongst sex workers. The VAMP mohalla committee monitors trafficking and liaises with the police. When a new entrant wants to work in the VAMP areas, she must provide a birth certificate or other proof of age. Alternatively, she is encouraged to visit the local government hospital where she receives a certificate of age following a physical examination. The onus is on each gharwali (brothel owner) to ensure that the women working in her house are over 18 and copies of the birth certificates are maintained by VAMP. Minor girls who come to the communities to work are brought before the VAMP committee. The committee members explain why she should not enter sex work and give her information about her rights as a child.

Counselling is a critical part of this process since some traffickers may exploit her vulnerability; it is not enough to just turn her away. The committee then tries to establish who has sent the girl to the community. If they suspect that the girl has been trafficked, the issue is referred to the police, who acknowledge that women from the VAMP collective inform them whenever young girls are trafficked into the area.

Tavleen: How do you think the programmes and policies on rehabilitation and subsequent releases should be made?

Meena: 1. Sex workers and allies seek decriminalisation of sex work such that existing criminal and civil laws which are used to harass and punish sex workers are repealed.

That is a crucial step towards redressing violence and discrimination. It will also enable sex workers to seek justice like all other citizens of India, instead of being criminalised.

2. Stop compulsory detention of adult consenting sex workers who are picked up under raid and rescue operations, or arrested under soliciting offences. Respect the agency, consent and choice of adult women who wish to remain in sex work and stop forcible rehabilitation programs for sex workers. Stop the dehumanising practice of seeking affidavits of family members to vouch for sex workers; as a pre-condition for releasing sex workers from rehabilitation homes/detention settings. Ensure greater accountability from organisations that are undertaking forced raid and rescue operations of adult sex workers in the name of anti-trafficking initiatives. Apply criminal laws against such organisations for the violence unleashed on sex workers and the violations of their rights.

3. Policy discussions regarding sex workers should be taken with meaningful involvement of and consultation with them. There should be nothing about sex workers without them.

4. Make sex work safe by proactively creating an environment wherein sex workers are protected from violence by State and non-state actors. Ensure safe working conditions by formulating protective policies and legislation drafted with sex workers.

Tavleen Kaur is a Research Assistant at CNES.

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