“If I’d been married, I would have been HIV positive by now,” says one of Vamp’s stalwarts, Shabana, reflecting that married women are far more vulnerable than she is as a sex worker, unable to insist on condoms with their husbands as she does with her clients. And her face breaks into a smile as she describes the life she leads: the freedoms she enjoys, her choice of clients, and the autonomy and empowerment she has. “I’m as free as a bird,” she says.
It is all too often assumed that disempowerment leads women to sell sexual services – as a last resort, as the ultimate step before destitution, and out of coercion rather than choice. The sex workers I met in Sangli, however, made it quite clear that being in business – they refer to their work as dhanda, meaning business – was not something they did out of desperation.
Some had been married and returned to sex work full of pity for those women who had to put up with the privations and lack of freedom marriage brings. Some had tried other jobs, and found them tiring, exploitative and badly paid, echoing the findings of the first pan-India survey of sex workers. Sex work was, for them, an occupation they spoke of with pride, despite the stigma. And, they say, this is where the problem lies: with the societal attitudes towards them, and the violence, stigma and abuse of human rights they experience as a result.
Vamp’s mission is to change society. Rather than treating sex workers as victims to be rescued or rehabilitated, it demonstrates the power of collective action as a force for women’s empowerment, mobilising sex workers to improve their working conditions, and claim rights and recognition. And they’re yielding results.