SANGRAM
Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha
 

Mission

People should believe that they can change things. It is not about a few activists fighting for other people’s rights. Anybody who has imbibed this understanding should be able to go and fight for their rights.

 
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“It is estimated that almost 3 million women are engaged in prostitution and sex work in India at highways, truck stops, dhabas, lodges, brothels, and private homes in rural and urban areas.”.

Prostitute, sex worker, woman in prostitution and sex work: the tyranny of terminology

The term ‘women in prostitution and sex work’ covers a very diverse group of women in India: devadasis, streetwalkers, housewives selling sex, ‘flying’ sex workers working in different locations, brothel keepers, HIV-infected women etc. It is estimated that almost 3 million women are engaged in prostitution and sex work in India at highways, truck stops, dhabas, lodges, brothels, and private homes in rural and urban areas. For some, prostitution and sex work is a full-time, ongoing occupation; for others it is a part-time or occasional survival strategy.

Given this enormous diversity, women in prostitution and sex work define themselves in many ways. In Kolkata, which has a strong labour movement, women in prostitution and sex work define themselves as ‘jouno karmi ’ or ‘sex workers’. In parts of rural Maharashtra, women call prostitution and sex work ‘dhanda’ or ‘business’ and call themselves ‘dhandewali’ or ‘women in business’.

At SANGRAM and VAMP, we use the term ‘women in prostitution and sex work’, both because many women in prostitution and sex work see themselves as businesswomen rather than workers, and because this term enables women in prostitution and sex work to claim multiple, fluid, shifting identities. When a woman in prostitution and sex work gets a client, she is a dhandewali. When she drops her daughter to school, she is a mother. When she talks about safer sex, she is a peer educator. Many women in prostitution and sex work retain their own personal identities simply by adopting a nom de plume for their working lives.

Working with women in prostitution and sex-work for the past eight years in the HIV/AIDS prevention programme has helped address our own double standards and bias while dealing with issues related to sexuality and prostitution. Our perception of prostitution as ‘exploitation, victimisation, oppression, loose, immoral, illegal’, was shaken to the core. Indeed, it was not merely our ideas and beliefs that had to be questioned and reformulated but even the very use of language to describe the women had to be transformed. ‘Whore’, ‘harlot’, ‘veshya’ – have been used as abuses for the ‘fallen woman’ – the subject of much public discourse. We have tried to reclaim some of the terminology, and assert our identities with positive meaning. We revised our vocabulary to weed out words, which reinforce the stigmatisation and marginalisation of women in prostitution. Hence, the importance of the use of terminology like ‘women in prostitution’ instead of the commonly used term ‘prostitute’. Women who practise prostitution use the term ‘women in business’ while referring to themselves. Now after much discussion among ourselves we have adopted the term People in Prostitution and Sex-work [PPS] to include all persons who `make money out of sex’.

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