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Baina beach demolitions: What about the sex worker's right to shelter?

By Rakesh Shukla

Acting on orders by the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court, around 250 huts belonging to sex workers, on Goa's Baina beach, were bulldozed in an effort to 'clean up' Goa. 'Operation Monsoon Demolition' appears to have been based on the assumption that sex workers have no right to shelter

This year, the rains that bring joy to millions of people in India brought only grief to the residents of Baina beach in Goa. Carrying an order by the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court, for the identification and demolition of 250 huts being used by sex workers, the state government set about bulldozing hundreds of hutments right in the midst of heavy rains lashing the area.

The rationale: The restoration of an 'unspoilt Goa' by cleansing it of the 'sin' of prostitution.

The huts are the homes of women who have been living here for the past 40 years. They have valid ration cards, voter identity cards, electricity bills and tax receipts as proof of their being bonafide residents of Baina; their children attend schools in the area. In fact, many children born in Baina are, today, vote-casting adults. Now, attempts are being made to class them as 'outsiders' from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and send them back once their homes have been demolished.

Using the 'outsider' bogey as the cause of all ills and whipping up chauvinism is a populist strategy often used by unscrupulous politicians. Like the Shiv Sena campaign 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' in the '60s-'70s, there have been similar campaigns all over the country including Goa. Displaying remarkable foresight, the Constitution of India -- under Articles 19 (1) (d) and (e) -- specifically guarantees, as a fundamental right, the right 'to move throughout the territory of India' and the right 'to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India'.

Labelled as 'loose', 'immoral' and 'sinful women' who lure decent men away from their wives and families, women in prostitution are at the very bottom rung of the social ladder. They stand lower even than that epitome of exploitation -- the worker. In fact, attempts to get them the higher status of 'worker' are reflected in the term 'sex worker' instead of prostitute.

The application of the law to this community is swayed entirely by people's moral condemnation of prostitutes and their work. The right to a roof over one's head, that is, the basic right to shelter and a life of self-respect and dignity, is an undeniable part of the right to life and liberty as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution. Yet, in a settlement of hundreds of hutments, it was the homes of women in prostitution that the high court ordered demolished.

Social attitudes seem to cut across institutions and influence the legislature, executive and the judiciary. In 1997, John Emanuel Vaz, the then MLA of the area, led a morcha demanding a 'cleanup' of the red-light area. The Goa government, exploiting sizable support from society for the demolition of the sex workers' homes, went ahead and tore down a large number of structures including bars, shops, contract workers' homes, even those of lower-level municipal staff workers. The prime land being cleared probably meshed in nicely with larger plans to privatise and expand Vasco port, and invitations to big business and corporations including multinationals to build hotels and tourist resorts in the area. Officially, however, sanction for 'Operation Monsoon Demolition' remains the assumption that sex workers have no right to shelter, and that it is okay to destroy their homes.

Ashwini Kumar, secretary at the department of women and child development, government of Goa, describes the demolitions as a "righteous, neutral and unique action of protecting the rights of women". Women in prostitution are obviously to be denied even their basic identity as 'women', and violations of the rights of 'fallen' women are to be projected as a protection of the rights of 'pure' women. Prostitution cannot be abolished from society by demolishing houses and rendering women homeless.

When the first settlements came up at Baina, in 1964, the then chairman of the municipality, Y D Chowgule, was of the opinion that since there was a port nearby, prostitution was inevitable. Officials of the Mormugao Port Trust, possibly more grounded in reality and less hypocritical than top-echelon bureaucrats, believed that no one could stop a sailor from visiting a red-light area after having spent months at sea. They accepted that, as in Amsterdam, Antwerp or Hamburg, red-light areas were an inevitable part of every port in the world. The only difference was that prostitution has been legalised in Europe, so there is greater medical regulation. In India, the health of women in prostitution is largely ignored. In fact moral condemnation and social prejudice, leading to practices like coercive blood tests, result in women in prostitution having minimal access to public health services.

Coloured by this prejudice and steeped in righteousness, even in the light of scientific evidence by the World Health Organisation and the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) that driving sex work underground proves counterproductive in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS, Ashwini Kumar asserts that the "continuation of the flesh trade at Baina was a potential source for the spread of HIV/AIDS". Evictions do not stop prostitution, they only serve to scatter the trade and make it more difficult to implement measures like distributing condoms to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The stigmatising attitude of society with respect to the rights of sex workers gets translated into other areas of the law as well. The law with regard to assault, grievous hurt, rape and kidnapping makes no distinction and is uniformly applicable regardless of the victim's identity. However, such lofty principles dwell only in the ivory tower pontifications on human rights in judicial pronouncements. In reality, 'non-persons' like sex workers are fair game to be beaten, raped and sodomised with no fallout for the perpetrator. Incidents involving violence towards sex workers/prostitutes generally do not even merit public attention. Last year, a prostitute from G B Road in Delhi was kidnapped by a policeman, taken across the border and so severely raped, beaten and brutalised that the case did surface in the media. Despite this, no action was taken against the perpetrator.

Recently, Kokila, a hijra(transsexual woman) sex worker was raped, beaten and brutalised by a group of men in Bangalore. Instead of lodging a first information report (FIR), the police chained her naked in lockup, tortured, humiliated and sexually abused her. At the initiative of SANGAMA, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the area, human rights activists staged a dharna at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Bangalore's M G Road. Later, a protest rally was taken to the chief minister's residence to demand the arrest of the culprits. The four policemen identified have not been prosecuted.

The message is loud and clear: You can beat, rape and sodomise 'perverts' like sex workers, hijras and other marginalised communities in complete violation of their guaranteed fundamental rights of life, liberty and shelter.

(Rakesh Shukla is a Supreme Court advocate)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2004