“Where do I start?” Priyani (not her real name) asks looking down at her hands.
Priyani is a former sex worker who, with much difficulty, had managed to escape a life of hell. When asked to share her story – years of abuse and misery – she takes a moment to think back to when she first got roped in and tied to the trade.
“I was a security officer”, she begins. “I met a friend at the security office who took me to a massage parlour in Kollupitiya. Not too long after I started working there, the police raided the place. I was among the girls who were apprehended”.
While she was incarcerated, Priyani made friends with an inmate who later helped her out of prison. Little did Priyani know that life, as she knew it had changed forever as she walked out of the prison gates.
Back home, she would get harassed by the police as well as her neighbours. Finding a job after her time in prison was difficult task, and therefore, she felt she left with no choice but to enter the sex trade. For the next fifteen years she lived a life full of abuse, constant fear and discrimination but she was determined to earn enough to send her children to school; hoping they would have a better future.
“My children are in their twenties now. They are married and they are doing well,” she smiles. She managed to keep her life as a sex worker hidden from them. But recently, her son came to know of his mother’s past and he reacted sharply by disowning her. Turned away from her home, she currently lives in a boarding house. Despite the broken family ties, it’s clear that Priyani adores her son and is proud that he lives a good life; her face lights up as she talks about him.
As difficult as it was, Priyani has walked away from her life as a sex worker as her children are now able to support themselves. The little income she earns for herself now is still hard to come by as the discrimination and stigmatisation of having been a sex worker is a lifelong burden in our society.
Priyani was strong enough to walk away from the sex industry. Many other sex workers were unable to break free from the trade once they entered it – they lacked the self-esteem to emerge from it.
Dr. Dayanath Ranatunga, Country Manager of UNAIDS Sri Lanka, says that the self-esteem of sex workers is so low that they consider themselves at the lowest rung of society. They accept their life that is full of abuse and don’t even dream of seeking their fundamental human rights, as they feel they don’t deserve any. This is due to the conditioning they have received from a society that has always shunned them. “No woman or girl has ever aspired to be a sex worker,” explains Dr. Ranatunga. “Most sex workers are in this particular industry for economic reasons. There is no other reason why they would choose to pursue one of the most difficult and stigmatized jobs in Sri Lanka, and world over”.
He elaborates that in most cases, sex workers are from poor socio-economic backgrounds, who were married very young. After having children they realize that they need more income to support their family which is why they enter the sex trade. They are then disowned by their families and are forced to live alone. This is where the second tragedy hits. A sex worker on her own risks losing her life while on the street; other sex workers are protective of the streets they occupy and don’t take lightly to new comers. Police and sadistic, abusive clients are another threat. Most sex workers have temporary companions who act as a source of protection.
However, they often become their procurer finding clients. They take all or most of the earnings for themselves, which is usually spent on alcohol or drugs.
Despite all this, these women are unable to leave their temporary companions, as the moment they do, their lives would be at risk. The situation is aggravated when their temporary companions abuse their children, sexually, physically and mentally. These so-called guardians are known to force the daughters of the sex workers into the trade as well. And the vicious cycle is set in motion for generations.
Dr. Ranatunga says the first step is to educate the children of sex workers. “Once they receive an education, they would feel empowered and look for other well-paid jobs. But it’s not easy for these children to enter the formal education system as some lack birth certificates and documents to prove residency, so they are not accepted into schools”.
Next, the sex workers themselves need to be empowered to realize that they are equal in terms with all other citizens in the country, and have as much right to seek justice. “Support systems must be set in place to protect them as they are afraid for their safety when they try to access the legal system”.
“In order to ensure their safety, sex work must be decriminalised, and outdated laws such as the Vagrancy Ordinance must be repealed”, says Dr.Ranatunga.
He explains that the Vagrancy Ordinance was adopted in 1842, more than 170 years ago. Under this Ordinance, which has been amended several times (last in 1978), anyone found carrying a condom can be arrested for being involved in sex work – this applies to anyone, not just sex workers! This also discourages sex workers to keep condoms with them, which in turn increases the chances of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) spreading in the country.
According to the ‘Situation Assessment of Condom Programming in Sri Lanka 2015’ report, a study conducted by the National STD/AIDS Control Programme, the Ministry of Health Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine and the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), almost all sex workers are aware of the protection condoms provide. However, their clients are less aware of the benefits of a condom, or if the sex worker mentions a condom, they leave immediately afraid the sex worker already has STD.
One sex worker said that some clients had removed the condoms before sex although she managed to get them to wear one. Perhaps comprehensive reproductive health education in school curricula will lead to a better informed and healthier society.
There are, however, a few sex workers who are not aware of how condoms protect. Two sex workers had said in the above survey that “one condom can be used for two clients” while some are too young to understand, as one sex worker who started at the age of 12, related that the first time she saw a condom she thought it was a balloon and she blew it up. While it is difficult to estimate the exact number of sex workers in Sri Lanka, it is clear that the numbers are significant. A large number of women remain trapped in an unforgiving and dangerous industry.
The threat of STDs spreading looms large as the community is discouraged from using condoms, even when they want to. Dr. Ranatunga makes a strong statement as he concludes, “If you choose to neglect this community, be prepared to welcome sexually transmitted infections and diseases into your home”.
This article first appeared here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/106532/Sex-Work-The-Untold-Story#sthash.7W7HVa6v.dpuf