KASHMIR: Sex-workers. Victims or victimless members of India’s society?

Aliya Bashir – WNN Features

Women in Srinagar, Kashmir
Women in the urban Kashmir region in the city of Srinagar have faced many obstacles, including economic and educational limitations. In spite of this, many women and girls try to persevere through their love of religion, spirituality and family. Some who are suffering the most from the pressures of poverty are often targeted by traffickers who act as agents (pimps) who work to sell them inside India’s active sex-trade. Once trapped inside a world of prostitution many women and girls have a very hard time ever getting out. Image: Jenny Mackness

(WNN) SRINAGAR, Indian administered Kashmir: “Is human trafficking an issue of crime or development?” asked an April 2011 in-depth report on sex-trafficking and global girls by Sanjog India, an advocacy organization based in Kolkata that helps rescue and rehabilitate girls trapped in the cycle of sex-work. “Most would argue – both. Domestic and international legal instruments define it as a trans-national organised crime, in recognition of the complex criminal nexus that is involved in profiteering from it…,” continued the report.

One of the most important questions we can ask is this: Can a history of regional military conflict contribute to the rising rate of human trafficking, specifically sex-trafficking in the Kashmir region. The answer is yes.

Conflict in the region of Kashmir has been an ongoing part of Kashmiri society for six decades as bordering nations have sought to gain power in the region. But the ongoing military violence has brought displacement, poverty, exclusion and lack of opportunity to women and girls in the region. Military violence in Kashmir, in the 1990s, also forced numerous  girls to become child soldiers or to become concubines for roaming military forces. Facing this and many other crimes, including rape, women had little power to report crimes committed against them inside the region.

“The significance of rape as a gender-specific form of abuse in Kashmir must be understood in the context of the subordinate status of women generally in South Asia, as in much of the rest of the world,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a 1995 special report. “…Abuses in Kashmir continue to mount, including deaths in custody, disappearances, torture and rape,” added the 1995 HRW analysis.

Many women, who were only girls during the skirmishes of 1990s, are now trying to find better financial situations for themselves and their families, but there is a problem. Due to conflict in the region, many of these women are the only heads-of-household. This places pressure on the children to help their mothers financially. And it also creates opportunities for human traffickers and pimps in Jammu / Kashmir, in India and bordering regions to mislead women and girls suffering under the stress of poverty with promises of money from careers and trainings that do not exist.

Heena’s story is different though, but is also not unique. She chose to become a sex-worker in Kashmir, as well as working as a prostitute in New Delhi, India, to come to the aid of her mother. Her personal situation, growing up in a family that was increasingly plagued by poverty, is very common for most women in her profession.

Heena’s Story

From her breast she pulled out a packet of cigarettes, a disposable lighter and lit up one. She inhaled some puffs deeply as if some of her fears would exhale. The smoke curled out of her mouth and within no time she threw away the half smoked cigarette.

“He said you are more beautiful than the real Heena (mehendi),” smirked Heena (last name withheld) during her interview with WNN. The word ‘heena’ is also known commonly as the brown paste that decorates and fades on the hands of countless women in India, including regions to the north in Kashmir.

Heena, who is now 25-years-old, is known as Sonia by customers who meet with her in her profession as a sex-worker. Each day she lies to her family; hiding her true profession and telling her mother instead that she is working as an event-manager for a national firm based in Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir that currently has a population of almost 2 million.

Trying to distract herself from past memories, Heena works to scratch an intricate design on her hands usingmehendi  (heena). She is attempting to hide her fate line, a line in her hand recognised by the science of palmistry that maps her ‘fate.’ To hide her awkwardness, she opens a red-coloured vanity box to put some ‘velvet touch’ loose face powder on her face, adding some dry red lipstick. Looking into the mirror, she cleans off the surmah (dark black eyeliner) that runs down her cheeks from large almond-shaped eyes after a few drops of tears begin to form.

“Whatever savings we had was spent on tests and medicines. There was left nothing to fall back on,” Heena describes. “I was helpless and couldn’t see my mother dying before me.”

At the time, Heena was a college student and just 18-years-old when her  mother, the only bread-winner for the family, was diagnosed with stage-one breast cancer. Following her mother’s diagnosis, the doctors advised Heena’s mother that if she could be taken to a hospital in New Delhi, she would be alright. But due to poverty her mother was unable to travel to the hospital for any treatments.

This was the reason why Heena became trapped in a profession that has now brought her isolation and shame.

Determined to ensure that her mother recovered completely from her illness, especially after doctors gave the nod that with proper treatment Heena’s mother would be fine, Heena grabbed at the first job that seemed to pay well.

After leaving college and following numerous ‘legitimate’ job hunts, Heena shares that she was forced to become “a call girl.”

“I am disgusted by this profession, especially being a Muslim,” admitted Heena. “But, I had no option to save my mother other than this way. I virtually begged [on the streets] before people and even [asked for a] bank…to lend me a loan.”

When Heena stepped into the world of prostitution she was suddenly able to help pay for her mother’s medical treatments. In India the cost of her mother’s cancer treatments were more than 20 lakh rupees ($3,584.27 USD). She also helped her mother with living expenses while she went to the hospital.

Although a great burden has lifted from Heena’s shoulders as she helped her mother get the treatment she needed, Heena describes that it took almost everything out of her. She would go on to become a prostitute in both Srinagar and New Delhi. Today she continues to hide the secret of her profession from her mother, and others.

Without revealing many details about her trade she hesitantly adds, “When I moved from post to pillar to seek help, many people approached me with bad intentions, but I tried to be firm… …I flinched, but I knew I wanted the money badly.”

Initially pretending not to hear the pimp who offered her the first chance she was ever given to make ‘real’ money, Heena tried to conceal her helplessness. But the person who offered her the money already knew about her financial need. “Before I could say anything, the person quickly added ‘I promise nobody will know,'” explained Heena. “I could do nothing and was paranoid. But Ma’s disease had already put [a] seal on my fate.”

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