My father had a stroke when I was in Class 7. We could not afford his treatment and had to borrow a lot of money. The moneylender charged us a very high interest rate, and my family was plunged into debt. He then started demanding immediate debt repayment, which we could not afford. He forced me to start working as an erotic dancer. I was barely 16 years old when I decided to escape my fate by getting married.
Within three years, I realised that I had made a huge mistake. My husband was a gambling addict, and started beating me and pimping me out to his friends to repay his debt, which at one point touched Rs 10 lakh. The physical abuse and sexual exploitation continued even after I had two children – a girl and a boy.
Eventually, I ran away and returned to my mother’s home in Andhra Pradesh. However, my father died that same year, and I had to re-enter the erotic dance profession to feed my family.
My life changed in 2007 when I joined VIMUKTI – a group for survivors of sexual exploitation, supported by an anti-trafficking organisation called HELP. I started advocating for the rights of survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution.
As sex workers, we not only suffer from stigma, we are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt. We have no access to bank accounts because we live in brothels and have no tenancy rights. No one gives us loans or insurance. We are forced to go to local loan sharks who charge us interest rates of 5 to 12 percent per month.
Our children drop out of school because they face stigma, suffer from depression and psychological stress, and are even more vulnerable to substance and sexual abuse.
Our fight against trafficking and sexual exploitation also includes campaigning for protection of sex workers and their children. We try and provide social and financial security so that no one is forced back into prostitution.
I have also started a small business where I sell pickles. I actively engage in VIMUKTI’s advocacy efforts as a state convener in the organisation.
We have also joined hands with the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT), where we have come together with survivors of human trafficking from across India, to fight for stricter laws against trafficking, for better social policies for survivors, and for their protection and rehabilitation. We also want more inclusion for our children.
We are trying to campaign with the government for better rehabilitation, access to victim compensation, and effective law enforcement conviction for traffickers.
*Name changed to protect identity
(As told to Diya Koshy George)