Tell Me More: Talking Anti‑Trafficking Laws and the Dignity of Sex Work With Kiran Deshmukh
“Once women band together, they become formidable opponents,” says the president of the National Network of Sex Workers.
In The Swaddle’s interview series Tell Me More, we discuss crucial cultural topics with people whose work pushes societal boundaries.
Kiran Deshmukh is the President of the National Network of Sex Workers in India and a member of the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP). Her activism is focused on women in sex work and individuals who live with HIV. The Swaddle’s Aditi Murti spoke to Kiran about why sex work is work, and the unique challenges that India’s sex workers once faced and continue to face.
The Swaddle: Could you tell us a little about how your life influenced your activism?
Kiran Deshmukh: My parents were farmers, but we were quite well-placed in our village as my family owned some land. But you know how people stifle young girls — no playing games, no acting like a boy. I hated it, because if women can do both farm work and housework, why can’t they have the privilege to behave as they like? When I grew up, this feeling got stronger, so I ran away from home. It wasn’t for love or heartbreak; it was for freedom. Since I was out on my own and had to feed myself, I chose to start sex work. I had the money to buy what I wanted, live where I wanted — for the first time ever, I felt like I took the right decision because of the independence money afforded me. I have never felt regret about choosing sex work.
Now, in the early 1990s (1992-93), there wasn’t much awareness about condoms and other forms of birth control, so I didn’t use them. In 1997, I tested positive for HIV, and I’ve actually been okay since then. Around that time, I started getting involved with SANGRAM (Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha) and Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP). There, we were informed about preventative measures against HIV and how to follow them. For example, we urge sex workers to never agree to sex without protection, no matter how much money the customer is willing to offer. It’s your life right? You make that decision. I have HIV, but I have absolutely no right to give it to someone else, so always using a condom is extremely important to me. I got properly involved with HIV-related work in 2008, because I was educated and wanted to do my bit for the community.
TS: Do you remember a moment where these awareness drives created a significant real-life impact?
KD: Working with SANGRAM during our early days was impactful because they learned very quickly that simply distributing condoms and increasing awareness isn’t going to help sex workers avoid HIV. The heart of our problem was violence — customers, gangsters, and cops who would insist on having sex without condoms, and beat us up if we refused. To tackle this, sex workers had to understand they were human and had human rights. Only that would lead to the collectivization, which would eventually protect us.
I still remember Meena Seshu (a social scientist and activist) telling us that we had to band together. She said she could simply distribute condoms, raise awareness and go home and watch television, because the stakes simply weren’t as high for her as they were for us. We continue to live on those streets and face violence — it was our responsibility to fight back. I still remember that exact day this realization sunk in: A gangster was on the streets making a scene and threatening us with knives. All the women who’d usually shut their doors and sit tight poured out into the streets. One woman undid her saree on the road, and the others used it to tie the gangster to a nearby pole. The women beat him up so much and so badly that not a single gangster has created a scene in our area since then. Once women band together, they become formidable opponents. That is our strength now.
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TS: People view sex work as either tragic or immoral, though sex workers around the world have specified that they see it as labor only. In India, what do you think stops people from seeing sex work as work?
KD: All professions are in a way tragic, no? But look at it this way — why does a person do any particular job — mainly to take care of their primary needs, right? Sex workers do just that — work put food on the table and feed their children.
Society, on the other hand, views the world in a moral–immoral binary. Whoever fits into their moral frame is an upstanding citizen; whoever doesn’t, becomes immoral. Society will point out how our work is related to our bodies and how many men we ‘sleep’ with. Legally, two people having consensual sex is justified but if you attach sex to money, it’s completely immoral. Why? You’re all saying it’s totally fine to have sex for free? I don’t understand this moral binary and fear — seems quite unreasonable.
As for tragedy, if a woman enters sex work due to a tragic situation, but eventually decides to continue in the same profession, why would you bother her with the circumstances that influenced her choice 30-40 years ago? It feels unfair. If a tragedy leads a woman to sex work, help should be available immediately.
TS: Considering the severe moral stigma associated with sex work, how do workers achieve pride or dignity in their ability to support themselves?
KD: I think the ideal philosophy is to only care about the fact that you do your job with integrity. There’s no need to pay attention to what people think because most people take away assumptions about sex work from books and films rather than reality. This is why we’re so intent on making people see sex work as work carried out ethically. Whenever we see a new girl around, we first enquire about her age to ensure she’s not a minor. If she’s an adult, we ask her what she wants. If she says she doesn’t want to do sex work, we try to get in touch with her family and make arrangements to get her back home, or to a safe space. We did this a while ago for a nineteen-year-old girl from Nepal — she absolutely didn’t want to do sex work and wanted to return to her parents. We reached out to the relevant authorities in question, and two activists traveled with her all the way to Nepal and back to make sure she reached safely. Choice is extremely important to us — if you do not want to work as a sex worker, then absolutely avoid the profession.
TS: There’s been a bit of tension between sex workers and anti-trafficking NGOs that work with women pushed into sex work. Could you elaborate on why?
KD: Absolutely. What happens is that sex work is often conflated with trafficking, when the latter occurs because of many different reasons like child labor or even marriage. So I wonder why many anti-trafficking NGOs don’t operate with an awareness of that nuance, considering the many raids they carry out to rescue sex workers. For example, maybe before rescuing me, you should ask if I want to be rescued? Why would you take someone against their will and deposit them at a rehab center? It’s really odd that they choose to conduct raids on adult sex workers when they could be working harder towards ensuring the safety of trafficked minor children.
I’m not certain about how women are treated in these rehab centers, but in my experience, they’re not very good at keeping track of women who come there. For example — there’s an area in Maharashtra called Miraj, which has a railway junction. Now, we find lots of young girls at that junction, and we do take them to either the police or rehab centers if they need help. But when we go and follow up later, these centers have no idea about what happened to the women.
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TS: In that case, working to stop the progress of The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 must have been pivotal.
KD: So the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha, but wasn’t passed in the Rajya Sabha before the government’s five-year tenure expired. The National Network of Sex Workers worked quite hard to try to stop the bill from becoming a law — we sent a letter with more than four thousand signatures to Maneka Gandhi — the then Minister of Women and Child Development. We also worked with Dr. Shashi Tharoor in our advocacy against the bill — he put forth an objection to the bill in the Lok Sabha on the behalf of sex worker unions. We also had lots of support across eight states from activists and lawyers to help raise awareness, even though the media didn’t pay attention to us. It took a lot of work to train and help sex workers understand the implications of that bill so that we could raise our voices against it.
TS: You’d also written to the President to voice your opposition against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019. Could you tell us more about how sex workers protect the marginalized among them?
KD: We did write to the President regarding the bill, but I don’t think it helped. However, any person — no matter their gender — is a person doing their job in our profession. So, if there’s a problem of any sort with anyone, we’d wake up in the dead of the night to run to their aid. A lot of trans individuals work under the radar as far as I know, but we’ve always stood by them and they’ve always stood by us through both violence and questionable legislation.
TS: Considering the violence and stigma against sex work in India, what actions should lawmakers take to protect sex workers?
KD: Indian law needs to completely decriminalize sex work. Now, the law does decriminalize sex work in theory but finds loopholes to bother us via trafficking laws like the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1986 (ITPA). Now see, anti-trafficking activists aren’t sex workers or don’t live among sex workers, so they have no idea who is a sex worker by choice and who’s being coerced into it. However, if anti-trafficking legislation and activists acknowledge sex work as work, we’re happy to openly collaborate with them on anti-trafficking work, because we live on the streets! We know the difference between a trafficked woman and a working woman. In fact, as I’ve mentioned above, we’re already doing this anti-trafficking work by taking young girls coerced into the profession back to their parents. Just recently we found a young girl from Rajasthan with a pimp and managed to contact her father and get her safely back home. We also tried to inform the police regarding the whereabouts of the pimp, but the police haven’t taken any action yet. All I keep saying is respect our choice, leave us alone, and let us help you.
This interview has been translated from Hindi, condensed, and edited for clarity.
Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.