Denial of Healthcare & Sanitation: Stigma of Sex Work in India

| By Avnee Satija and Priyanka Gulati |

For female sex workers in India a loss of income during their menses could mean swelling their poverty. India’s sex industry, that employs millions of people, is rife with social stigmas.

But the multifold oppression of female sex workers makes menstrual hygiene just one of their worries. For them, even looking after their basic sexual health is a struggle, considering the nature and circumstances of their work. 

They are ripped off of any social, economic and legal advantages — ultimately deprived of healthcare and sanitation facilities that harms their sexual, reproductive and menstrual health.

Dealing with menstruation as a sex worker.

But sex work in India exists at various axes of oppression with low wages and no labour laws to protect the sex workers — causing them to be stuck in the wheel of exploitation. 

Menstruation in itself is a taboo and when combined with a stigmatized profession like sex work, menstrual hygiene or even talking about periods goes out of the window. 

Sex workers work 24/7 with no fixed timing and low income, they don’t have the privilege of taking few days off, so, this brings us to our question, how do sex workers deal with menstruation?

As sex workers cannnot afford an unpaid vacation of even a few days, in an industry that works hourly, they are forced to find harmful methods to support themselves during menstruation. 

Sanitary napkins, tampons or menstrual cups: They are products of privilege. Being put in a situation where they don’t earn enough to suffice their basic needs, how will they spare money for something that just intervenes with their daily earnings? 

These women are forced to make do with dirty cloth, sponge or cotton to stop their blood flow. And with limited access to clean toilets, water and soap, their menstrual health suffers. When nothing works out they offer their client anal sex only. Some may also take contraceptives to stop their periods or have a hysterectomy or remove their uterus. 

No condoms, no abortions, no healthcare. 

Sex workers, often, do not have the autonomy to negotiate with their clients to use condoms. Women who are victims of trafficking, especially, are not allowed to use contraceptives. This puts them more at risk of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV.

They are not only deprived of mentrual hygiene but are also deprived of any sort of healthcare services. This is mainly because activities surrounding sex work like running/managing a brothel are seen as nearly criminal due to the stigmatisation of the industry.

“Access to healthcare is anyway difficult for sex workers due to the stigmatisation surrounding their work. Even at normal times, many doctors don’t want to touch or examine them because they think they will get sexually-transmitted diseases or other diseases from sex workers,” said Kranti, a Mumbai-based non-government organisation (NGO) that for sex workers.

Our law does not protect the workers involved in the sex market. With several layers of exclusion imposed upon them by society, female sex workers are often looked down upon and sometimes even prevented from entering public spaces or making use of public amenities.

Helping sex workers overcome the consequences of the stigmas that — cling to them — is a human rights issue. Sex workers need access to all of the healthcare facilities including HIV testing, family planning, abortion services and policies in place to recieve help from the government.  

There are a lot of grey areas as people are hesitant to recognize ‘prostituion as a human right’; this is because of the coercion, violence and trafficking that are a part of the industry. 

But what we need to understand is that when we fight for ‘prostiution as a human right’, we call for the social and economic security of sex workers, in an industry and society that erases them.

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