Updated: Apr 1

A common phrase used to stimulate the imagery of sex work in our society is ‘Illicit by night, eschewed by day’. This pariah community of sex workers with needs and desires as conventional as ours, are yet excluded from the mainstream. Sex work is often considered to be the oldest profession and it is not surprising that our ancient literature is awash with references to prostitution, which is a clear indication that sex work is not a manifestation of decadence, as is understood now. In India there were the ‘Ganikas’ in ancient times whose equivalent in modern times came to be the ‘tawaifs’ or courtesans who maintained vast establishments under the patronage of the nawabs, the men of the nobility.

However, in colonial and post-colonial India, this decadence had reached its culminating point. Kamathipura, Bombay’s oldest and largest red light district was established and maintained by the British military. In fact, several other brothels were instituted by the British, so that its troops could avail the services of the exploited girls and women belonging to the poor, destitute Indian families. In the 1890s, the police had instituted iron bars to the windows and doors of the brothels throughout India, in order to safeguard the women from aggressive customers and sadistic acts. However, it seems that time has stood still in such brothels especially in Kamathipura, as these "cages" still persists today where several women continue to be confined and cooped up without any agency and basic rights to live.

Sonagachi, the biggest red light district in Asia acquires its name from a Muslim saint. The intriguing tale was outlined by PT Nair who argues that earlier the area was the lair of Sanaullah, an infamous Muslim bandit. On his death, his grieving mother is believed to have heard his voice coaxing her not to cry, as he has now become a Gazi ( religious warrior), and so the legend of “Sona Gazi” began. However, the legend soon died a natural death and Sonagachi turned into a popular hub for prostitutes and pimps.

During the colonial rule, India was subjected to a diabolical policy of duality by the hands of the British. In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in Britain, which was inevitably applied to other parts of the empire. It was through the act of registration that the Indian prostitute was enrolled as a colonial subject. The intention of this Act was not to prevent vice and immorality amongst its own soldiers, but rather to vilify the body of the Indian prostitute as a vessel filled to the brim with filth and impurity.

The Contagious Diseases Act as a system was invented for yielding sensual pleasure to the British soldier, and for protecting him from diseases consequent on such indulgence. However, it was implemented under the more stringent Cantonment Regulations which compelled the Indian prostitute to be placed within a cantonment, where appointed houses called chaklas (brothels). These women were allowed to consort with British soldiers only. Besides the chakla, there was a prison hospital in each Cantonment, in which these girls were confined against their will. These women were routinely examined in search of any trace of venereal diseases in such Lock Hospitals.

It is however unfortunate that though our legal system has freed itself from these corrupt and degenerate vestiges, the stigma and slander is still attached to the body of a sex worker. Sex work in India is regulated by the ‘Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act’, 1956. Although sex work is not illegal according to the Act, supporting activities such as maintenance of brothels or soliciting customers are punishable offences. Moreover, since we as a society have created a binary of morality and immorality and have the ability to discern and choose between them, it reflects our entitlement and privilege, and adversely affects those helpless sex workers who are kept out of the mainstream and the purview of proper health care and better standards of life.

In fact their work is not even considered real work but a vestige of shame and ruin. Social distancing and the lockdown have left sex workers across the country in poverty and hunger. Their condition and income have suffered a devastating blow during the pandemic, which has also extinguished any other avenues of income. An interview with a sex worker in Kamathipura revealed that the pandemic has created such a huge financial crisis, that even when Mumbai suffered from terrorist attacks, floods, and other man made and natural calamities, their condition was better than what they have experienced in the year 2020. They are also citizens of India with equal rights, but often this marginalised community gets overlooked and their sufferings are drowned in the abyss of our ignorance. However, on the other end of the spectrum, there are women and girls who are deceived into sex work — victims of sex trafficking who continue to face sexual exploitation every day. On 21st September, 2020, the supreme court, distressed by the condition of these sex workers, urged the centre and states to instantly provide some relief to them in the form of dry rations, financial aid and masks, soaps, and hand sanitisers. However, this did not suffice to sustain their livelihood, as many of these women have children to feed.