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An Effort to Unionise & Their Many Woes: Lives of Sex Workers of Lucknow

From domestic abuse, sexual violence, and custodial torture to discrimination, social boycott and mysterious death - Lucknow’s sex workers share their harrowing experiences.

By Aliza Noor
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publive-image Varsha Rawat, ORW, sex worker and head of the Union in Lucknow | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

Varsha Rawat, 40, is a sex worker and an ORW (Outreach Worker) belonging to the scheduled caste community, who has worked for sex workers in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, since 2006. Having witnessed social stigma, police brutality and lack of support to access more facilities, Rawat has dedicated a large part of her life to spreading awareness about the struggles of sex workers in Lucknow, a community that has not yet got the media coverage it deserves. 

Working with the Aazaadi foundation, Rawat recently contributed to setting up the Uttar Pradesh Network of Sex Workers (UPNSW). Officially recognised in June this year, along with eight other members, she has managed to snowball unionising in Lucknow for sex workers.

Rawat spoke to The Probe about the ground realities of sex workers in the city. Why the community has not gained much from government schemes and what she hopes to achieve from unionising. The Probe also met with other sex workers on the ground. This is their story.

For context, Uttar Pradesh is said to inhabit 22,060 Female Sex Workers (FSW), out of which Lucknow has around 600-700 of them. “Sex workers in the city mostly belong to Scheduled Caste or OBC category. A lot of them left their homes for financial freedom. Some wanted to run away from their families, and some were forcefully brought into this work years ago,” said Rawat.

publive-image Varsha Rawat in front of her house in Lucknow | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

As for the demography, most sex workers are above 30 years of age, barring a few young girls. Rajajipuram, Daliganj, Chowk, Hazratganj, Charbagh and Nishatganj are some of the city’s more crowded but not widely-known areas for sex workers. Unlike GB road in Delhi or Sonagachi in Kolkata - the more popular red-light areas - the workers in Lucknow are dispersed near a railway station or local markets.

In 2005, Rawat taught underprivileged children basic English with an NGO, Vigyan foundation. She was asked to help some sex workers in the city. Finding her paltry income of Rs 1,200 per month, very less, she found no other option but to join the field as a sex worker. 

“I remember the first time I did the work. I did it because I really needed the money. I had tears in my eyes when the client gave me 1000 rupees. I realised then that the label of sex worker had been attached to me,” she recalled. This was around 2007. Cut to 2022. She still works as a sex worker for some clients who refuse to go to any other worker. 

‘Female Sex Workers Can’t Get a House’

Rawat says most sex workers in the city have little to no knowledge about government schemes. She says leave-alone schemes, something as basic as getting a room to live in, is also a big issue. There have been many instances where sex workers have been forcibly evicted from their rented accommodations after their identities were discovered by the owner of the property or the neighbours.

“I know around ten sex workers who are still looking for a house but cannot get one, because of which they are forced to sleep on the same ‘addas’ they work in. The problem is that a sex worker cannot hide her identity for long. There is too much discrimination."

publive-image One of many sex workers in Lucknow | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

For the last 35 years, Dr Girish Kulkarni, co-founder of NGO Snehalaya has been working for sex workers and their children. “Even though there are several schemes for the underprivileged from different castes to avail housing, there is no such scheme for sex workers. Most sex workers also hail from drought and flood-hit areas. Many of them have fled their homes, and their families don’t accept or attest for them, so getting a caste or migration certificate for them is very difficult.”

Having worked for around 400 children of sex workers in his NGO, Kulkarni said he has only been able to get caste certificates for 15-16 of the children because of how strenuous the process is.

Talking about the government’s Ujjwala scheme, he said, “Ujjwala scheme applies to only victims of trafficking, but for many of these women, it has been years. If you ask any victim today if they were trafficked, they will say they came into the field on their own. This is because people ask them who forced them or if a police case was filed, and they do not have the confidence or power to fight such cases and get the perpetrators booked".

Syed Raza Hussain Zaidi, 26 and Ritika Rachel Wilson, 27, co-founders of the Azaadi foundation, have worked extensively on distributing ration among sex workers during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Zaidi told The Probe, “Sex workers in the city do not avail ration by revealing their profession. Instead, they use their labour employment cards. Hence, they don’t let people know about their identity in the first place, lest they face any discrimination in accessing the ration”.

Meanwhile, Wilson said that during the second lockdown, the Azaadi foundation resorted to crowdfunding, and in association with Oxfam, they distributed the ration among all the sex workers in Lucknow. “Given the confusion and inaccuracies with their official identity cards, we stuck to roll numbers and verified each person on the list on the ground. Along with sacks of ration, we provided sanitary products and toiletries that lasted for a long time,” she said. That was the first time they witnessed the disproportionate impact of the lockdown on the vulnerable community.

publive-image Raza and Ritika with the children of sex workers during the pandemic in 2020 | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Zaidi and Wilson also constructed a library for the children of sex workers, including a space for FSW to learn stitching and embroidery during the pandemic. Zaidi said, “Initially, it was only for the children of sex workers. Soon, other children from the neighbourhood also attended the library. So, we opened it for them too. However, shortly after, two women visited the library and took their children out when they learned that they were studying with the children of sex workers”.

‘Scared to Speak Up Against the Police’

When Rawat came to know about the Supreme Court directives this year that stated that the police must treat sex workers with dignity and respect and not abuse them verbally or physically, she was a little relieved to know that the topmost court of the country has taken cognizance of their plight and propelled conversations on discrimination and violence against sex workers. 

“Some days ago, the police beat up Baua, one of the sex workers, and she has bruises all over her right leg. In that precarious position where the police have more power, how can they fight for their rights and speak about the Supreme Court directives? Moreover, most of them don’t want to offend the policemen, who can jail them for longer periods. It would affect their earnings. They have mouths to feed,” she remarked. Baua was allegedly locked in a room by four men a few months ago and was subjected to sexual violence. Varsha and her friends could not reach her as she was drugged and kept in a secluded place by the men.

“If an FSW tests positive for HIV, even today, she will be boycotted and discriminated against. We want the sex workers in Lucknow to be able to live a normal life like everyone else, even if it seems like a far-fetched dream right now. We want to organise more CBOs (Community-based Organizations) from around Lucknow and strengthen the Union further,” she asserted. 

publive-image A Female Sex Worker (FSW) staring at the mirror | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

The Daily Lives of Lucknow’s Sex Workers

The Probe spoke to Shweta, a female sex worker in the city. “If a policeman recognises any of us standing in our ‘addas’, they will just mercilessly beat us up.” 

A few of the sex workers stated that the chances of them getting arrested and/or beaten ultimately depend on the kind of policeman and his mood. The workers allege that on arrest, the policemen ask for no less than 5,000 rupees.  

Baua, 37, belongs to Malhar caste. “No sex worker enters the profession because they want to do it. This is not the kind of work any woman aspires to do,” she told The Probe.

The police had caught hold of Baua. “A few months ago. The police thrashed me and asked me repeatedly, ‘Dandha kyu karti hain?’ (Why do you do sex work?). I had bruises all over my hands because they beat me up badly.”

Sheela, from Badhai (Carpenter) Sharma caste, has two daughters and has been in the profession for around five years. “This work depends on “necessity”. Hum bik rhe hain tabhi toh koi khareed raha hain,” said Sheela. (We are being sold as there are buyers). 

HIV Camps Bring the Workers Together

These sex workers work in awareness and distribution camps under the city’s National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO). While Rawat is their chief, the workers are merely recognised as a High-Risk Group (HRG) and treated accordingly. Every area has a peer who heads and supervises the campaigns and acts as a link between the workers and the authorities in general.

“There are ten peers in the community in different areas of Lucknow. I worked as an outreach officer and had four peers work under me. We have a monthly meeting wherein we discuss getting more peers, so Sheela, Shweta and Radha are all part of HRG until they joined the camps to work as volunteers,” said Rawat.

Shweta notes, “I was barely earning earlier. Sheela came before me and asked if I needed work and could do this job. Then I went through an HIV test and was inducted into this camp.” Now, it has been four years of sex work for Shweta. She has two sons, aged 17 and 10. 

publive-image A Female Sex Worker talks to The Probe | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

Meanwhile, Baua, also born and brought up in Lucknow, ran away from her house after a brawl with her mother when she was eight years old. She went to the Charbagh railway station and has never left the place since. 

“Before becoming a sex worker, I sold bottles and ‘daatun’ (teeth-cleaning twig) at the Charbagh railway station,” she told The Probe. She choked up and continued, “bad people with the wrong motives force you into this profession. I have left those bad memories behind. How do I even start to tell you?” she added.

Radha’s Domestic Abuse and Sony’s Mysterious Death

Radha, from the Pasi caste, worked as a sex worker for almost ten years before she left work. Now, she carries out awareness campaigns amongst community members. Also married off young, her husband is a driver who earns around Rs 6-7000 a month, barely enough to sustain her family, including three children. Radha is also a victim of domestic abuse.

publive-image Every month Radha goes to Telibagh to distribute condoms | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

Radha said, "I took this job then as I wanted to stay away from home on some days and improve my mental health. At least, that is what I thought back then. I didn't know any better."

Some sex workers told us shocking stories of abuse, domestic violence, mysterious disappearances, and murder. Speaking to The Probe, Shweta narrated, "Sony was in her late 20's. One day, she earned Rs 4-5,000, and she was thrilled and celebrated it with all the other workers. Everything seemed fine. A week later, she was found dead. To date, we don't know why and how she died, and it still bothers us".

The ‘Adda Malkin’

Surekha, 55, belongs to the Scheduled Caste community. She is an “adda malkin”. Some call her - the pimp. 

In a small two-storeyed house, a sex worker sat at the doorstep on a chair, looking at all those passing by carefully. All the household items were stuffed in places they were spilling out. One of the sex workers was playing ludo online while the other was chopping off some fresh coriander. 

“In the pandemic, there were days when there was only salt in the kitchen and no dal. If there was dal, then there was no flour. I have been in this field for nearly twenty years now, and I have been helping many women earn a livelihood.”

A couple of workers live on rent, while the new ones come and go. However, Surekha does not take in young, unmarried girls as she firmly believes they should be able to pursue some other profession. Most of the clients, they claim, belong to well-to-do families, right from middle to upper class, and it includes rich businessmen, ministers and men in defence forces.

“We are like insects from a dirty, polluted drain. It does not mean that our children should be like us,” said Surekha, who now wants her granddaughter to become an IAS officer.

While recalling her past, Surekha broke down. She was married at the tender age of five. Her husband, too, was abusive and subjected her to domestic violence.

Wiping off her tears, Surekha rued, “Once he thrashed me and threw me in a river. I complained about him, and he was taken to the police station, where he was beaten up. Then I left him. My father said that he could not take my responsibility because I was in my youth. Then I lived in a forest for six months”.

publive-image The scars on female sex worker Surekha’s hand. Surekha was a victim of domestic violence. | Photo courtesy: Aliza Noor

‘I am Much More Than a Sex Worker’

Most women we spoke to told us about the dreams they nurtured that never turned into reality. Sheela studied Computer Science but was unable to pursue it further because of poor finances. Shweta was married off at the age of fifteen. She wanted to become a doctor but was instead pushed into sex work. On the other hand, Baua has told her family members that she sells ropes at Charbagh railway station. 

Almost all the women we spoke to had much to talk about their dreams and aspirations as much as they rued about their personal traumas and limitations. Speaking on behalf of all the sex workers of Lucknow, Shweta says, “All we want is to earn our name. Respect is the most expensive thing. We want to earn our respect so that one day we can hold our heads high and tell the world that I used to be a sex worker, but I am not just a sex worker today. I am much more than that.”  

(Names have been changed to protect the identities of the women)