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Celistinahami 2.0(16)

26 October 2016 Posted by No Comment

12th October, 2016, Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka

A couple Sundays ago The Sunday Leader published an article titled “In the Footsteps of a Sex Worker” that reflected the many prejudices we, as a society, grapple with whenever we discuss sex work. As the reactions on social media showed, many were offended by the article, and the online version was subsequently removed. The article did however raise the question of choice – Does one choose to be a sex worker? Is it a choice at all? This is the central question we addressed to Kusum, from Abhimanya, a sex worker collective in Sri Lanka.

Sex workers have been with us in Sri Lanka, perhaps as long as there has been an “us” in Sri Lanka. Female, male and Trans sex workers have been documented throughout our global history, including Holy Scripture. This human practice is probably as old as hunting for our meat, and definitely as old as when we began to grow crops and organize societies – the oldest profession in the world.

By the early 1900s, despite, or perhaps because of, repressive Victorian morality, Colombo was just like any other port city in the Empire. Christopher Ondaatje’s Woolf in Ceylon tells of red light areas and love for native prostitutes, including the most celebrated of them all, Celestinahami.

One can feel all the experiences of Colombo in the story Woolf wrote, “A Tale Told by Moonlight”, which he published in his Stories of the East in 1921. Though it is not great literature, it is plainly true to its settings. It explicitly examines ‘truth’ and ‘the real’ in Ceylon…

Reynolds [protagonist of “A Tale Told by Moonlight”] wants to feel and experience life at last, so Jessop – “I suppose the devil came into me that evening” – decides to take Reynolds to a brothel. He calls his servant to fetch two rickshaws and they bowl along dusty roads past the lake and into a red-light area with Tamil and Sinhalese girls. (This was either Slave Island or Maradana, near the Beira Lake; the Burgher girls were to be found elsewhere, on Reclamation Road.) “All the smells of the East rose up and hung heavy upon the damp hot air in the narrow streets.” Reynolds is at first awkward, but then he falls for Celestinahami, a Sinhalese girl. Her immense eyes “looked as if they knew and understood and felt everything in the world”. Celestinahami differs from other prostitutes: she wears white instead of coloured robes; she separates herself from the others so as to pay attention to Reynolds; and she is very beautiful. Reynolds pities her, looks into her eyes and thinks he has fallen in love. He tells Jessop that his feeling is the real thing, more than mere physical attraction. And part of Jessop agrees: “It was the real thing, I tell you; I ought to know… night after night he went down to that hovel among the filth and smells.”

How much has changed in a century? Red light areas have been replaced with common knowledge of where sex workers walk the streets; lodges and hotels that allow for sex workers, local and foreign, to operate; massage parlours (including Ayurvedic), and karaoke clubs that have rooms on tap; and home-based sex workers that use modern technology to identify and maintain clients. The hovels and the smells however have gone nowhere. They still exist in the armpits of the city, as Kusum will show.

Museum of Prostitution, Amsterdam

Public Health approaches around HIV and sexually transmitted infections have identified sex workers as key allies in the HIV response, especially around prevention.

“The main mode of transmission of HIV is unprotected sex between men and women (78%), with men who have sex with men accounting for 16 % of the transmission. The percentage use of condoms by sex workers at last sexual act with a client was 93%, while the percentage of condom use at last anal sexual encounter with a male partner, among men who have sex with men and drug users was 58% and 25%, respectively.” – Situation Assessment of Condom programming in Sri Lanka 2015

“We’re conducting saliva tests for HIV with our women. We go to them and talk to them, and they like it because they don’t need to come to the clinic, there’s no blood involved. So far we have done about 100 tests.” – Kusum, Abhimanya, October, 2016

The public health approach to sex work has also helped us further understand the causal factors and nature of sex work in the country. The Integrated Biological and Behavioural Surveillance Report 2015 states the following with relation to female sex workers (FSW):

“Reasons for first entry into sex work are typically due to financial reasons (not having money or a job) and abandonment by husband, thereby showing potential for interventions with separated or divorced high-risk women, including skills training and livelihoods programmes. The average amount of money earned per last sex act is between 1,276 Rupees (Colombo) and 1,822 (Kandy), which when compared with the typical salary for a plantation worker is approximately four times higher, clearly illustrating a financial incentive for entry and maintenance in sex work. Three wheeler and truck stops are a commonly reported place where FSW meet clients, showing possibility for implementing interventions in three wheeler and truck stops and other areas of mobility, such as mobile clinics, IEC, etc. The most common location where sex is being exchanged is hotels, providing an opportunity for engaging with the private sector in a condom distribution strategy. A high number of FSW have been paid more for sex with no condom, and as such interventions targeting clients to raise awareness are needed, and condom negotiation skills building for FSW.”

Our discussion with Kusum indicates that perhaps The Sunday Leader article was poorly researched and written, but that some of the issues the writer raised are by no means invalid. Sexwork is rarely the choice, we advocates of sex worker rights, imagine it to be. The conditions they live and work under are often desperate. Circumstances of the sex workers Kusum represents have changed little from the time of Celistinahami.

bakamoono.lk: Why do you think women and girls get involved in sex work in Sri Lanka?

Trafficking is very common. Girls from rural villages are brought to lodges in Colombo by pimps who promise jobs abroad, or jobs in Colombo. These pimps have connections with pimps (job brokers/agents) in the village who help them identify vulnerable girls. The girls don’t understand what’s going on. They are brought to a lodge, forced to have sex. bakamoono.lk: Raped? Yes, they are threatened, and sometimes they are raped on the way, even before they get to Colombo.

Museum of Prostitution, Amsterdam

bakamoono.lk: Why don’t they go back home?

They come with hopes of getting jobs abroad, to support their families. They’re in debt to people in the village, because they have borrowed money to pay the agent fees and for their other expenses related to their new jobs. All in the hope of paying them back.

Some girls are from Tamil speaking communities and can’t speak a word in Sinhala, and so don’t know what to do, or where to go. Others are kept locked up, and are continuously threatened, until they feel they have no escape but to engage in sex work.

Some girls come to work in Ayurvedic massage parlors after they see the advertisements in the newspapers offering a good salary. The girls think that they’re there to help Ayurvedic patients, but soon realize that they are there to have sex with clients. Some girls cry and refuse to have sex, and try and go home, but like in the lodges, they’re not allowed to leave. They’re forced into sex work. Again, some of them feel they can’t go back because they come to make a living and help their parents. They have taken loans, told the entire village, and their parents have high expectations.

Some women are abused at home. Their husbands beat them and are cruel. They feel they have nowhere to go, that no other life is possible.

Some women I work with start using heroin to cope with the emotional pain of being a sex worker. Their pimps encourage them to use drugs, and even get them hooked. Once a woman is drug dependent she has no choice but to continue as a sex worker. And the rehabilitation centres we send them to have no effect. They find that a more cruel environment, and soon return to sex work and drug use, and refuse to ever return to any form of rehabilitation.

bakamoono.lk: Usually, how old are the girls when they start sex work?

I once rescued a girl from a massage parlor, she was seventeen. These young girls have had sex with their boyfriends, sometimes as young as thirteen. Then they get pregnant and have to leave the village. Their boyfriends abandon them and pimps quickly identify these pregnant girls that are running away from home. They get the girls to come live with them, become a father to the child, and then slowly, but surely, convinces her to take up sex work. They make a deal with the lodge owner, who pays the girl about LKR500 a day, although he earns between LKR 5000 and 10,000 a day through her. She never earns enough money to escape that life.

bakamoono.lk: Do you know of any children engaged in sex work?

The youngest girls I’ve met are 13. They don’t understand anything. If a boy gives them LKR 50, they go with him. They don’t go with men though, only young boys. No one teaches them anything. Not even parents. Sometimes parents are in jail. There are also girls who get pregnant by the live-in partner of the mother when she goes to jail. The mother generally takes the side of the partner and blames the girl, or kicks her out of the house, and this girl then has nothing but sex work to survive.

bakamoono.lk: What happens to the children of these unions?

It is to provide for the children that these girls get into sex work. The children live with them. I know of families with sex workers from three generations. You have grandmothers who still do sex work in front of Fort Station.

bakamoono.lk: How old are these grandmothers?

There are some over seventy, even seventy five. I know of at least twenty five women over the age of sixty five who still do sex work. No one looks after them. They have had no education. No savings. Due to economic reasons they are forced to continue sex work even when they are old. Old women are weak and vulnerable. They do anything that is asked of them, even sex without condoms. Their clients are mostly drunk, and they don’t bother going to a room. She just stands there on the street and lets the client do what he has to do, for perhaps LKR 100.

bakamoono.lk: As far as you know, are there women who start sex work out of choice?

It is possible. Some women who get no affection from their husbands turn to other men. The men they start affairs with take advantage of them and leave them. This keeps happening, and then they automatically become sex workers. It happens.

bakamoono.lk: Is there a solution?

We need rights. We need education. We need identity cards. Sex workers don’t have identity cards because they leave home when they are young and they can’t go back to get their documents. We need to be able to vote. We need to be entitled to benefits like Samurdhi. Women need jobs. The government needs to create jobs. If there are jobs that pay at least LKR 500, because sex workers earn between LKR 500 – 2000 a day, at least some will leave the trade. We need training and skills to stay at these jobs.

And we need constant discussion with young people in schools as well as in community centers such as churches and temples about sex education. Awareness is crucial, in every aspect of reproductive health. One of my friends from the community got breast cancer. She was trained on HIV, reproductive health, she visited STI clinics regularly with her peers… women don’t know about these things. Sex worker or not, I think every woman over thirty five should get pap smears and test themselves for breast cancer.


Editors Note: The discussion with Kusum then turned to her aspirations and plans for her organization, Abhimanya. Her goal is to provide drop-in centre services for sex workers, especially those who use drugs, to help provide a safe space for them. She takes in a team of photographers next week to help us further explore the world of Celistinahami 2.0 (16)

Courtesy bakamoono.lk

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