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Prostitution in the city is like the elephant in the drawing room-everyone knows it's there, but nobody acknowledges it. Now, a research paper says there are14,000-odd sex workers in the city. More than 70% of them do it without the knowledge of their families. About 80% of them want to quit the profession, says the study, but they don't want government rehabilitation.

The city's sex workers are mostly from the lower and lower-middle classes, who earn between Rs 100 and Rs 1,500 per customer, but there are also better-off women who do it to enrich their bank accounts, says the research by Uma Ravikumar, a student of the University of Madras, who interviewed and held group discussions with 311 sex workers in the 18-50 age group. In the absence of a designated red light area, they are all over the place, says Ravikumar, who interviewed them in Vadapalani, Kodambakkam, KK Nagar, T Nagar, West Mambalam, Porur, Broadway, Tiruvottiyur, Perungalathur, Kallarai, Egmore, Mount Road, Teynampet, Nungambakkam and Parry's.
Most of the sex workers also have another job for social security. "They may be flower sellers, vegetable vendors or maids. Rehabilitation would mean their clandestine profession being exposed and admitted," says Ravikumar. She adds that lack of finances is another barrier as most women enter the industry because of poverty and rehabilitation doesn't often compensate for the loss in finances. "As sex work is both low skilled, female dominated, labour intensive and well paid, it is difficult to expect women to leave it completely," says Ravikumar in her research paper.

G Babu, honorary president of Mass Action Network, an NGO that works with women without family support, says there is anyway no comprehensive government scheme for rehabilitation of sex workers. "If a sex worker reveals her profession and takes up some other work, her house owner will immediately throw her out. There are no provisions to ensure that she is supported financially or even has a place to stay," he says.

Almost 70% of those interviewed said their children did not know about their work and therefore didn't have normal social support sources like family and friends. About 40% of the sex workers were non-familial and lived either in a brothel, alone or with friends. "This is why there are no red light areas in Chennai unlike Mumbai or Kolkata. Tamil culture has always been more conservative and there is more stigma attached to being labelled a sex worker," says Ravikumar.

Stigma and isolation means that sex workers are dependent on their colleagues for emotional and financial support and are hesitant to leave the profession. "Also, many of these women feel that they lack the skills and confidence to excel in any other profession after sex work. Also many of them are addicted to sex," says Ravikumar. Even if a sex worker is rehabilitated into another profession, she is not able to get rid of the sex worker tag. Experience shows that most of these women are forced to quit their new jobs as they are constantly approached by co workers and other men for sexual favours.

Till now, the study says, rehabilitation has only focused on giving the sex workers an opportunity to leave the profession. It shouldn't be, Ravikumar says, about just providing an alternative job and should take into consideration their self esteem and private life as most female sex workers also suffer from emotional issues, sleeplessness, fear, guilt and uncertainty about the future. "Around 90% of them are alcoholic and are on overdose of pills. Most of the health programmes only focus on their sexual health without paying heed to their mental well being," says Ravikumar. "A possible to rehabilitate them would be to eventually reduce the amount of sex work while giving them necessary skills for an alternate career," she suggests.

Majority (91%) do not want their children to enter the profession

85.95% say their children's education is a priority (85.9%)

Half (51.1% ) of the participants were sure their families would support them if they left the profession.

More than 50% (60.5%) said they were afraid of leaving the profession and also had a sense of guilt.

89.4% say they would need economic support if they leave sex work

83.6% say they need vocational training

69.8% say they need to find residence

84.6% say they need an alternate job


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