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Better livelihood prospect drives poor Indian women to prostitution

An article by Subir Ghosh in Digital World published on the 1 May 2011.

New Delhi, India. Four out of five female sex workers in India have joined the profession voluntarily; they were not forced or sold into it. Prostitution is just one among several livelihood options available to women from poor backgrounds, says a new survey.

The ‘First pan-India survey of sex workers’, conducted by Pune University researchers Rohini Sahni and V Kalyan Shankar, found that 79.4 percent of sex workers (both those who entered the profession directly as well as those with prior experience in other fields) say they entered the profession on their own accord.

The remaining were forced (71. per cent), sold into prostitution (2.8 per cent) or cheated (9.2 per cent) into it. Of those who were sold, a vast majority say that it was their husbands, lovers, friends and acquaintances who sold them, very rarely blaming strangers.

The preliminary report of the study was released at the documentation centre of women’s group Akshara in Mumbai on Saturday. The survey, commissioned by the Forum Against Oppression of Women under the aegis of the Sangli-based Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation, was conducted on a sample of 3,000 female sex workers and more than 2,000 male and transgender ones from 14 states and one union territory. The next leg of this survey will analyse data on abuse, stigmas, migration patterns among sex workers and special skills needed by them.

Major findings: * 60% were from rural family backgrounds, 35% from urban family backgrounds; * 65% were from poor family backgrounds, 26% from middle-class family backgrounds; * 50% had no schooling, 7% had primary schooling up to class four, 13.4% had secondary schooling up to class seven, 6.5% had schooling up to class ten and 11.3% up to class twelve; * 70% were Hindu, 20% Muslim, 6% Christian and 0.4% Buddhist; * 26% came from Dalit backgrounds.

The survey found that while poverty and limited education are conditions that push women into sex work, poverty pushes women into other labour markets at earlier ages than in sex work. Therefore, sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, as other occupations are pursued before sex work emerges or is considered as an option, the researchers said. Sex work may also be regarded as offering a significant supplementary income to other forms of labour. Many of those surveyed also worked in diverse occupations in the unskilled manufacturing or services sector for extremely poor wages.

The survey allowed women to express their work identities, both in sex work and out of it, providing flexibility to assert multiple work identities. In describing their working lives, a significant number of women move quite fluidly between other occupations and sex work. For example, a street vendor may search for customers while selling vegetables and a dancer at marriages may also take clients. It is not easy to demarcate women’s work into neatly segregated compartments. Sex work and other work come together in ways that challenge the differentiation of sex work as an unusual and isolated activity.

The survey found that there was an overwhelming presence of economic reasons for women to have left their jobs in the informal markets – comprising responses such as low pay, insufficient salary, no profit in business, no regular work, seasonal work, not getting money even after work, could not run home with that income.

Sex work offers a significant premium of incomes to what unorganised labour markets offer across India. While poor family backgrounds and the need to look for incomes and livelihoods at an early age is what drives many girls and women into the un-organized labour markets, the possibility of earning higher incomes is what could be driving them into sex work. This, the researchers said, is corroborated by the fact that a large number of girls/women entered the labour markets much earlier than they entered sex work.

Sex work, therefore, cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of „possible livelihood options‟ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.


Economics and Development