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Drought drives rural Indian women into city sex trade

by Stella Paul | stellasglobe | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 3 July 2012 08:15 GMT

Amid crop failures and crippling debt, thousands seek a living as sex workers in Hyderabad

HYDERABAD, India (AlertNet) - Sex worker Aruna Raju, 45, moved to Hyderabad 11 years ago after drought and repeated crop failures led to the deaths of four of her family members. “I have seen people shedding tears of blood,” she says.

Aruna’s family had five acres of land in Nizamabad district, 172 km away, on which they grew cotton, maize and chili. But from the mid-1990s, the rains became irregular and crops wilted in the fields. “The land became so dry, we could feel smoke coming out of it,” she says.

Her father became deeply depressed, and some four years later, he died after suffering chest pains. A little later, her mother, younger brother and her own daughter died from malnutrition. Her husband had already left due to the shame of being unable to feed his family.

“That is when I came to Hyderabad, so I could find a way to survive,” she recalls. But with no schooling and no one to help her find a job, Aruna’s only option was prostitution.

Like Aruna, Raji Ratlawat, another sex worker, also remembers parched land and dying crops in her village in Mahbubnagar district. But it was an outstanding loan that forced Raji to migrate to the southern city of Hyderabad.

She describes how the nine acres of land that had sustained her family for centuries became their downfall.  Between 1997 and 2002, they dug two bore wells to irrigate their fields, but the groundwater level kept on falling, leaving only thick mud.

“We had borrowed Rs. 90,000 ($1,800) from a local moneylender at a 45 percent interest rate. When the crop failed, there was no way to pay that loan. So there was only one thing we could do - flee the village,” Raji explains.

She came to Hyderabad in 2004. Eight years later, she is still paying off the loan. “Every year, the interest rates kept increasing and the total debt became too high to be paid off at once. I don’t know when we will be free from it,” she says.

Aruna, Raji, Shyamala, Nirmala, Laxmi, Sharada, Akshaya, Nikhitha, Nilamma, Meena - the list of women pushed into sex work here by the consequences of an increasingly harsh climate goes on.

“There are over 25,000 (female) sex workers in the city today - higher than any other city in India,” says Jayamma Thomas, who runs Chaitanya Mahila Mandali (CMM), an organisation that provides counselling and legal support to sex workers. “Of them, 60 percent are women who migrated from villages and were forced to enter the sex trade as they had no other earning alternative.”

Jayamma herself moved to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh state, in 1999 from Nalgonda, another water-stressed district 70 km away. For two years, she lived off sex work, before launching CMM, the first NGO in Hyderabad to assist sex workers. Nowadays, she also advises the state government on related issues.


According to the Andhra Pradesh Human Development Report, 42 percent of the state’s arable land (2.15 million acres) is degraded, with recurring drought one of the main causes.

The worst-hit district is Anantapur, where as much as 70 percent of land is degraded. It also has the highest number of farm suicides of any Indian district - over 4,000 in the past decade alone.

Shashi Kumari, 22, a sex worker since she was 15, hails from Anantapur. As landless farmers, her family scraped a living, labouring on other people’s land. But seven years ago, the landlord they worked for committed suicide after consecutive crop failures.

“My father went to Mumbai to find work, but we never heard back from him. A neighbour who owned a ‘dhaba’ (wayside eatery) near the highway offered me and my sister a job there,” recalls Shashi.

The ‘job’ involved serving food and washing utensils during the day, and selling sex after dark to the clients, mostly truckers.

“If you drive along any of the national highways passing through drought-hit districts like Nizamabad, Adilabad, Chittoor, Anantapur or Warangal, you can see dozens of women hanging about the highway waiting for pick-ups,” says Jagannadha Rao Adiraju, chairman of Human Action for Rural Development (HARD), a city-based NGO trying to control the spread of HIV/AIDS among sex workers. “Almost everyone has a farmer father or a husband who either killed himself or ran away after a crop failure.”

Many of these women will eventually reach Hyderabad, hoping for greater financial opportunities - the main reason why the number of sex workers is rising by 15 to 20 percent every year, he explains.

Shashi came to the city in 2008 after a client told her she could earn much more there. “In the village, they paid us anything from Rs. 50 to 100 ($1-2). Now, I can make up to Rs. 5,000 ($100) a week,” she says.


Her income may be higher in town, but much of it goes on rent and commission to the broker who brings her clients. Without any valid proof of identity, she cannot access basic services such as free healthcare, neither can she vote nor open a bank account.

Hyderabad-based social worker Jai Singh explains that without a bank account, women can’t save any of what they earn.

“Some of them try investing it in small businesses like kiosks selling tea or cigarettes or fast food. But the return is unpredictable,” he says.

“Most of the time, the borrower refuses to repay (the money), and being a sex worker, a woman can’t risk approaching the police, which would mean getting booked under the ‘immoral trade’ act.”

Singh has been lobbying the police, banks and other government officials to allow migrant sex workers to open a bank account. So far, 600 women have done so.

“It is important to provide them with the documents that will lead to the economic and social security they lack,” says Singh.


Adiraju argues that prevention is better than cure. The best way to curb migration and the linked rise in prostitution is to offer new economic opportunities at the village level, he says.

The government has identified about 80 schemes that could create livelihoods, such as making candles and matches and mat weaving. But as yet they only exist on file, according to Adiraju.

“If even half of them can be implemented, the rate of migration, especially among women, would significantly come down,” he says.

Another constructive step would be to allow farmers to borrow directly from banks so they would not have to resort to private moneylenders.

Jayamma says most farmers are illiterate, making it difficult for them to approach a bank. “The moneylenders take advantage of that and make them agree to exorbitant interest rates, putting them into a never-ending debt trap,” she says.

Both Adiraju and Jayamma urge the government to work with NGOs to identify families most at risk of migrating. Loans and vocational training could then be provided to the women of these families as a preventive measure.

Almost half the women Jayamma’s organisation works with would like to go back to their home villages. “This could become a reality if they had an alternative livelihood opportunity,” she notes.


But some of the sex workers say that, as long as rural areas lack water, life will continue to be uncertain.

“The last time I visited my home, there was hardly enough water to drink. When I returned, I brought back a bundle of unwashed clothes with me because there was no water to wash them. How can we live like this?” asks Akshaya Gaud, 24, from Adilabad district.

N Kiran Kumar Reddy, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, thinks he has an answer: he has inked a plan to bring water from neighbouring Maharashtra state.

Once operational, the Pranahita-Chevella Irrigation Life Project will irrigate nearly 3 million acres of land and supply drinking water in seven districts. “We hope that this will prove to be a virtual boon for the drought-prone areas of the state,” the minister told journalists recently after signing an agreement setting up an inter-state board to speed the project along.  

The scheme will take at least a couple of years to complete, however, and Maharashtra is also struggling with drought and rising water demand from urban areas.

Meanwhile, organisations like CMM are bracing for more migrant sex workers as the summer continues to sizzle. “The risks may be extremely high, but as long as their land is ‘dead’, the women will keep fleeing their homes and coming to this city,” says Jayamma.

Stella Paul is an environment and development journalist based in Hyderabad, India. Twitter: @stellasglobe



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