On International Sex Workers’ Day on June 2, Helen and Pushpa from Swathi Mane spoke to us about the rights of sex workers. They are the founders of the Bengaluru-based NGO. “We don’t have any specific rights as sex workers but we are eligible for every right that is available to a woman in India,” they say. “We used to be called ‘Dasiyaru’ but now they refer to us as ‘sex workers’.”
The NGO’s surveys reveal a tragic lack of basic rights among these workers. “We work through most nights but we still do not have a house to stay in or a bank account to save our earnings in. Which is why we have provided a space for sex workers to come to Swathi Mane to freshen up and rest until 5 pm. This has been a big achievement.”
Swathi Mane had never dreamed of growing to at the rate that it has. “Our turnover has been in lakhs. That money belongs to all our women,” says the team.
“If any woman from the Swathi Mane fold is facing trouble, our team makes visits and assesses the situation. Legal rights are equal for everyone; if one of our women commits a crime, we inform the police and expect them to follow the right legal procedure. It works both ways,” says Pushpa.
Helen spoke about the government schemes that are relevant to sex workers. “Government schemes need to be more accessible to us. Under the housing scheme drafted to benefit sex workers, we are expected to pay INR 50,000 but that is near impossible for us to do! We are requesting the government to provide a subsidy of INR 25,000.”
Women and girls who are at Swathi Mane come from three primary circumstances. One, when they fall in love at an early age, elope from their homes and end up here; two, they come seeking help due to financial crises; and three, in some rare cases, they come after being forced into sex work by their husbands. “We take special care of the very young girls among us. We provide them counseling and help them return home. We never force anyone to take up or continue sex work.”
Swathi Mane also expressed gratitude towards the organisations which are supporting them in their work. The Government has been supporting the team with lawyers who handle their legal cases; “We are thankful towards CFAR for making it possible.” This June 1st also marked three years of Bill Gates’ visit to the organisation’s offices. “We discussed our lives and work that day. We are very proud of that meeting.” The team also thanked Radio Active for marking International Sex Workers’ Day and for airing their voices.