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[act] Women Sex Workers on Indian Highways

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    FYI South Asia Citizens Web ========================================= TWILIGHT ZONE FOR WOMEN RED-LIGHT WORKERS ALONG INDIAN HIGHWAYS All over the country,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 4, 1999
      South Asia Citizens Web


      All over the country, highway dhabas are mushrooming, populated
      by women from nearby villages or towns. Prostitution has always
      thrived in such areas where deep seated poverty, unemployment and
      vulnerability mingle to form a potent background to exploitation.

      By Meena Menon

      It is dusk and in the fading light, the small shed is only barely
      discernible. Two women run inside and peer through the door. "Are
      you from the police," they ask us in fear.

      Located on a barren stretch of land, this shed is one of the many
      dhabhas that dot the Solapur-Hyderabad highway which provide
      women as an "additional service" to truck drivers and motorists.

      The woman who runs the dhaba was in prostitution earlier. Now,
      with a shed, two cots and a few girls from nearby villages, she
      is in business. "I rented this place for Rs 1000 a month and take
      Rs 20 per client from the girls. Here the police harass us often
      and I cannot even bribe them. They told me it was beneath their
      dignity to take haftas from me because I am a woman."

      Since the dhaba is located on a lonely stretch, boys from her
      native town help her keep guard. "The police chase us over fields
      and lock us up for the night." As we speak, women arrive
      clutching small bags. They will spend the night here and return
      home in the morning. There are about eight girls, some from
      nearby villages as well as Solapur. Most look in their early

      On a dark side of the national highway, 35 km from Solapur, a
      group of women sit by the wayside. A closer look reveals most of
      them are garishly made up, wearing bright saris. "I came here
      because I saw other women in finery, but I find that there is not
      much of a show at all," said one of them.

      J, who is from a village near Bijapur, left home after a quarrel.
      She ran away to Pune where she came into contact with a woman who
      put her into business (the dhandha, as it is called). She came to
      Akkalkot where she is at present, again through one of those
      nameless, faceless contacts.

      "I work till midnight and in the evenings we all gather here
      because it is too dangerous to sit in our houses alone." In their
      flimsy houses, they are prey to drunken men who force their way
      inside, take them to the fields behind and abuse them.

      J earns about Rs 100-200 if she is lucky. She visits her parents
      regularly but is not sure if she wants to stay with them, even
      though they are willing to have her back.

      Increasingly, fuelled by demands from truck drivers and
      motorists, the highways are turning into impromptu earning
      grounds for girls from nearby villages who either opt for
      prostitution or are compelled by circumstances. One dhaba owner
      said, "The more beautiful the women, the more they earn."

      About 70 km from Solapur, again on the national highway, the road
      has stray dhabas (as the roadside eating halts are called) with
      very little evidence of food or the usual trappings. At a
      ramshackle structure, the owner, a school dropout says, "Girls
      are necessary on this stretch, otherwise there is no hope of any

      He adds: "They come on their own from nearby villages. I have two
      with me now and I take a Rs 15 commission for each client. Since
      this is illegal, I have to pay the police station Rs 1,000 a
      month as hafta. If a girl is beautiful, she can get as many as
      five to ten clients a day." His monthly earnings can touch Rs
      4,000 to 5,000 a month.

      He is not concerned about the reasons why the girls come here.
      "Who asks them why they are here. What else is there for them to
      do in these parts. Some of them are already in the business and
      come here because the money is good."

      I hear the same story from another dhaba owner. There are three
      women here, one of them from Latur. "They are poor women with no
      options," he says philosophically. Behind another dhaba, two
      cement boxes with doorways serve as rooms to entertain clients.
      All around used condoms lie in small messy heaps.

      Presiding over this sordid kingdom is a man who was externed from
      his hometown after he committed murder. "I stared eight years
      ago, before that I was into poultry farms. This is good business
      and I have 10 to 12 girls. I have to pay the police a hefty 6,000
      along with my neighbour as a monthly bribe because of our
      flourishing business," he said.

      He let on quite accidentally that he goes to Mumbai to bring
      women from there and he seems to have some sort of a network
      which he did not wish to speak about.

      Near Indapur, two girls stand alone on the deserted highway. One
      is an orphan from Pune. Her daughter is looked after by domestic
      help at home as she travels all over depending on stray contacts
      and addresses. She is away from home for a fortnight at a time
      travelling from place to place.

      Women said they were beaten up and raped in the fields by clients
      or petty criminals and goondas who demand free services. Local
      farmers also took advantage of them. The police did not register
      any complaints of assault. Sometimes, bodies of women are found
      on the fields, half eaten by animals. The police take no
      cognisance of these cases, the women said.

      Some of these women work all night going from truck to truck to
      earn a livelihood. "We are poor women in need of money but all we
      get is torture and stigma," said one of them.

      For these women, many of whom have chosen this profession, it is
      not the stigma of being a prostitute alone that is damning. In
      addition, they have to put up with physical and mental torture
      and absolutely no help from the police.

      Many of these women, who could not return to their homes, have
      now found their way to the highway dhabas to earn a precarious

      Some of these women who distribute condoms to truck drivers along
      the highway, find it increasingly difficult and dangerous to
      continue with the programme.

      While economic reasons seem to be the main reason women are
      opting for this precarious life on the high road, many also come
      from broken families, some are deserted by their husbands and
      others look on it as a means of increasing their earnings.

      There is also no ruling out the fact that some are procured for
      the business. Some of the owners of the dhabhas disclaimed that
      they actually procured women, and said the "girls" came on their

      Police seem to think deterring the business or closing down these
      dhabhas would solve the problem: what is not tackled is the
      economic security of the women or their future. All over the
      country, highway dhabas are mushrooming, populated by women from
      nearby villages or towns.

      This region of southern and western India is also a place where
      the devadasi tradition still survives and many of the red-light
      pockets are dominated by women dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma.
      It is also an area marked by migration to the cities due to
      drought, poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

      Prostitution has always thrived in such areas where deep seated
      poverty, unemployment and vulnerability mingle to form a potent
      background to exploitation. --Third World Network Features.

      - ends -

      This article was written by the author as part of a media
      research fellowship from the National Foundation for India. It
      was earlier published in The Hindu. Meena Menon is a Mumbai-based

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