Out of the whirlpool

How a cooperative founded and run by female sex workers helped one prostitute break the cycle of exploitation and hopelessness, and how it could help many more like her

The shoddy rooms of a massage parlour in Thamel beckoned Sabitri (name changed), with the promise of providing escape from her financial and social miseries. She was only 22, with three kids; freshly abandoned by her husband. Despite all the jingles against child marriage and the hugely popular tele-documentary Ujeli, she had been married off at the age of 12 to a 21-year-old who drowned his own sorrows in alcohol and violence. The marriage was the fire; the frying pan was the misfortune of being born the sixth daughter to Dalit parents who would go on to have 11 children in total in a tiny village in Nuwakot.

When the husband vanished one day, Sabitri collected her three toddlers and descended on the streets of the Capital, hoping like thousands of others, for a life better than the one back home. Illiterate, she began working as a maid in the house of a Marwadi family. Her earnings were meagre—a few thousand rupees— and she suffered constant sexual abuse at the hands of her employer. Things did not improve when she swapped sweeping floors for sifting sand at constructions sites. Men, she experienced, were only after one thing. Women did not have to be pretty—they just needed to be able to stand on two legs.

The decision to sell sex is never easy, especially when circumstances are actually making the choices. Sabitri prepared herself by deeming the profession a temporary arrangement, one she figured she would slave at until she saved enough for a different, socially accepted enterprise. But the world of the oldest profession is a whirlpool designed to keep in those who venture into it for as long as possible.

Each time she gave in to a client’s demands to give him the ‘sassage’ he bargained for, she was getting sucked in deeper into that vortex. The customers, mostly Nepalis, were almost always disrespectful, reminding her what she was, even as they ravaged her. Some were curious to know how she had landed in the most stigmatised and illegal occupation, but they never offered her a way out, choosing instead to haggle over the price for her services: Rs 250? Rs 150? To them, she was not just a prostitute: they also wanted her to be the cheapest one in the world.

Interestingly, the pimps and the massage parlour managers seemed to be the most courteous, calling her nanu, babu, as long as she understood what was at stake. If her mind wandered at the possibilities waiting out there in the ‘sanitised’ spheres of society, or if the pressure from the demands of the work gave her a headache, the ones who happily took a 75 percent cut from her earnings did not hesitate to threaten her with disclosure. She was perpetually scared that her kids and her landlords would find out about her work. Every night, as she watched her children gobble down the meal she had prepared, her appetite shrank and she chain-smoked two packets a night. The pimps took advantage of this weakness.

The plan to save enough for an exit always ended up in tatters. Prostitution paid more than sand-sifting and housekeeping, but it also demanded a high level of mental and physical preparation. Colleagues and employers constantly prompted her to buy new, attractive clothes to seduce customers. Escape from stress came in the form of expensive meals, drinks, drugs and cigarettes.

And she stayed in the profession even though there were absurdities like the police harassment to deal with. Police and army personnel make up 90 percent of the clientele, say sex workers, but once they are done with having their way with the women, these guardians of the state routinely round them up and take them to the police station, shouting to everyone that they found the women in their panties, caught in the act.

Each time she was arrested, Sabitri was charged Rs 25,000, wrongfully, as the maximum fine applicable under the public offence act. Prostitution is illegal under the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act, 2007, and the maximum penalty that can be imposed on voluntary prostitution is a three-month imprisonment and a fine of Rs 5,000. But Sabitri knew nothing about that. Once arrested, the pimps would free her by paying the sum demanded, on the condition that she pay them back.

Sabitri was trapped. Whatever she earned was spent in sustaining herself and her children, in getting ready for the next day and the customers it brought, and in jostling with the justice system. Four years whirled by, serving men after pathetic men. Soon, her children would ask questions. But the only way out seemed in. Sabitri was on her way to becoming a massage parlour manager herself.

She was so deeply resigned to her fate that when Rakshashree Savings and Loan Cooperative —founded, run and managed by sex workers since 2008 —pointed a way out, she was sceptical. Finance companies and cooperatives were notorious as scammers; so were non-government organisations, as dollar farmers. Sabitri did not want to be a pawn in another ruthless game.

But the staff members at Raksha Nepal, the non-profit organisation that founded the cooperative, did not stop wooing her. When they offered to look after her kids while she took a six-month tailoring course, Sabitri was convinced, and took up on their offer.

As the member of the financial institution, she had to save at least Rs 200 a month, not a whole lot, but many a mickle makes a muckle. In the six years since its establishment, the cooperative has progressed from 34 (founding) members with Rs 600,000 in capital to 3,500 members with 6.5 million in financial transactions. Eighty percent of the members today are female sex workers, around 1,000 of whom are already out of the sex business, while others are working towards getting out too.

A year and a half ago, Sabitri took out a loan of Rs 100,000 from the cooperative at a three percent interest rate and crawled out of the sex trade. She now runs a tailor shop, far away from the centre of Thamel, and while it pays less than prostitution, she has nothing to hide but the story of her years spent at the massage parlour.  Her days of smoking and spending are left behind at the crummy brothels.

She has also found a new voice, as a leader of a group of 20 female sex-worker members in the cooperative, and she lends a helping hand to any woman trapped in the profession, like she was. The stats about women like her are harrowing. Of the estimated 32,000 female sex workers in the Valley, 90 percent want to move on; the remaining 10 percent have just deadened the voice that used to say ‘quit’. Most of them are from outside the Valley. Sixty percent have kids, some born out of wedlock and some as a result of unprotected sex with the clients.

Today, the cooperative receives around 300 new memberships every year. It is an encouraging number, but the pace of rescue is agonisingly slow. Two more women have already sprung up to replace Sabitri.

Published: 28-06-2014,  The Kathmandu Post