(Pic by Chandana Wijesinghe)

One may say eliminating sex workers from the society could be a solution in re-moralizing  the society.  Prostitution is considered the oldest profession in the world, and as long as people have sexual desires, there will always be a demand for sex workers- accepted or unaccepted by the norms. This will continue to be a profession, despite its legality. As a society, we tend to discriminate them, disrespect them and deprive them of their rights. Especially, women in this industry are deprived of their basic human rights. “Although it’s the woman engaged in this industry who is being discriminated and abused, people forget to look at what made them choose this profession,” Pushpa*, a former sex worker said.
As she unfolded her story at the UNAIDS media workshop on HIV/AIDS, commercial-sex workers and law and human rights last week, she pointed out how women in this line of work are subjected to violence and abuse by their clients, and how they become helpless as they can’t seek protection from authorities, and how they become subjected to dreadful illness including HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Pushpa is from a middle class family far away from Colombo. Ignorant about the predators waiting for her to come out into the society, she enjoyed her childhood. Just as she reached her adolescent years, she met a boy. Inexperienced and innocent Pushpa thought she found the love of her life. Her family objected to this affair forcing her to stop it. She was too young to have an affair; she was too young to get married.

Despite the objections from the family, Pushpa saw her future settled with this boyfriend and eloped with him right after she turned 14. “Although I wasn’t married to this man till I was 17, by the time I turned 18, I was a mother of two,” she said.  “With two young children in the family and no steady income, our financial situation was terrible. This is why I had to seek a job in the Middle East.”

She left for a job to Dubai for five years with immense hope to have a good family life. She sent money home to her husband to take care of her children. When she returned home after five years, she didn’t see what she expected. It was worse than the opposite of what she expected to see. “It was only my children left when I returned. My husband has wasted everything that I earned.”

Desperate and helpless, Pushpa looked for a way to keep her children fed. She even tried out being a security officer. But being a security officer barely kept her children fed and their needs met. When she lamented her situation to a friend from Colombo, she promised her a job in Colombo. “I came to Colombo with my friend. She took me to a lodge and I wasn’t really sure what my job was.” She was left there to satisfy men who came to this lodge. She said she didn’t know a way out of this, and she didn’t really have another option.

“This is how most of the girls who come to Colombo ‘automatically’ fall into this sex workers’ trade. Most of the time, they don’t know what type of work they have to do until they are doing it,” Pushpa said. She says her story is common to hundreds of ‘street sex workers’ in the society.

As a woman, firstly,they face distress mostly due to poverty, also the main reason why they fall into this line of work. “Situation of a sex worker in the streets is completely different from the situation of a sex worker working at a five star hotel,” she said adding that lack of education and protection leads towards health problems and drug-related issues.

Today, Pushpa has achieved her goals in life. She no longer has the need to earn money for children, as they are now settled with good education and occupation. Yet, they do not have an idea of what their mother had to go through to make them what they are today. Knowing the threats women in this field face, Pushpa has established a welfare organization to help and educate the women in this field.

The estimated number of sex workers in Sri Lanka is 40,000. This includes anyone who engages in sexual activity with someone for payment in cash or other methods. Common belief is that the trade is for women only and caters only to men. However, as UNAIDS Country Manager for Sri Lanka, Dr. Dayanath Ranatunga said, “Females too seek the services of sex workers, particularly males and there is also a market for men who have sex with men. Thus 40,000 is merely an estimate and the actual number of sex workers in Sri Lanka is undoubtedly higher.

What is, however, tragic isn’t the number of sex workers, but the number of sex workers who receives the help of the United Nations. A mere 2,000 sex workers are involved in the programs held by the UNAIDS. This of course means that, more than 38,000 sex workers are not receiving awareness on safe sex, condoms, STDs and most importantly, HIV/AIDS.

Another startling statistic is the number of customers each sex worker has per day. The number can be as low as one, but it can also be as high as 10. This means that on average, a minimum of 200,000 sexual relations occur each day. Thus a lack of monitoring could lead to a situation where STDs and HIV/AIDS spread like wildfire.

One of the best ways to control the situation is the use of condoms. In the early 90s, Thailand distributed free condoms. Dr. Ranatunga explained that the then Prime Minister, Anand Panyarachun, himself took the initiative and even traffic policemen had condoms with them so they could distribute them among taxi drivers. This was an incredibly successful program and its effectiveness can be seen in the rapid increase of HIV/AIDS following the government’s decision to cut funding for free condoms in 1998.

It is thus ironic that in Sri Lanka, it is the State that stands as a barrier to the use of condoms. Even if organizations distribute condoms among sex workers, during raids, the condoms are seized as evidence to produce at courts. Thus the sex workers either don’t keep the condoms in their possession or they aren’t able to keep them. There is also the risk of being assaulted by customers who don’t wish to wear a condom. This too is a problem faced by sex workers.

The situation is worsened by how the sex trade, or entertainment industry as Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa called it, is portrayed by the media. The raiding of spas and massage parlors are highlighted by the media and often leads to the impression that prostitution itself is illegal. According to the Brothels Ordinance (1889), it is an offense to manage and act or assist in the management of a brothel.

However, during a raid of a brothel, the sex workers are also remanded and their possessions are taken in as evidence. Explaining the ridiculousness of this, Dr. Mahanamahewa asked, “At the scene of an explosion, will everyone present be remanded and all their possessions held as evidence?” While massage parlors, lodges and spas are raided under the Brothels Ordinance, it’s under the Vagrants Ordinance that sex workers who operate on the streets are remanded.

“Every person behaving in a riotous or disorderly manner in any public street or highway shall be liable,” is how the offense is defined in the Vagrants Ordinance. Thus even an individual, especially a female, who is merely standing at a bus stop or railway station for a long period is harassed and remanded. Pushpa explained that, the policemen on duty are often drunk and assault the suspects.

This leads to a situation where the sex workers need procurers or ‘temporary husbands’ which is a direct translation of the Sinhala term for them. Unfortunately, procurers are often drug dealers and users and thus take advantage of the vulnerability of sex workers. A sex worker can’t even seek the protection of the legal system against abusive procurers because the police is  quick to question why they continue to be with their procurer.

This is in fact a question asked by many: ‘Why do people turn to prostitution and why do women continue to work as sex workers?’ The answer is simple; they don’t have a choice. Pushpa didn’t become a sex worker because that was her dream job or because it was a promising career. She had no money, no husband, but had children to feed and take care of. She was in debt and faced many financial difficulties. It’s easy for people with money to say that if one tries hard enough, they would be able to find a better job. However, when looking at the unemployment rates in Sri Lanka, it becomes obvious that it isn’t as easy to find a different and ‘better’ job.

There is also a lack of documents. Some sex workers don’t have National Identity Cards (NICs), passports or any form of official documents. This means that their options are limited. Mahanamahewa explained that the legal system doesn’t protect sex workers, and it is also a barrier when attempting to acquire documents.

Mahanamahewa also spoke about the outdated-legal system of this country. Since brothels are illegal and working on the streets is dangerous, the trade has shifted to electronic media. While it is usually the procurer or pimp who acts as a middleman between the sex worker and customer, today, sex workers contact the customers through mobile phones and Facebook. However, this doesn’t fall under an offence of the Computer Crime Act (2007), Mahanamahewa said. Thus amendments need to be made to the legal system, he added.

Pushpa didn’t choose this career because she wanted to behave indecently or for her own sexual gratification. She merely wanted her children to have their daily bread; to give them a good education and ultimately a good life. Doing a respectable job didn’t help her. As a society, we discriminated her once for being poor for her lack of education. We didn’t leave her a choice, but to sell her body on the road. Once she became a street worker, we again discriminated her for being a ‘prostitute’. We labeled her. Pushpa, still haunted by her past, is willing to help her fellow workers since she has walked in their shoes.
Unfortunately, it’s uncertain if the society will understand her and give her a helping hand to prevent them from being harassed; to prevent horrible diseases from spreading.
Looking at the Pushpa’s story, it must be asked, if a situation is inevitable, should society oppress it or make changes to cultural norms and the legal system to ensure the safety and protection of those affected?