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Home > South Asia Labour Activists Library > India: Women’s Work, Stigma, Shelter Homes and the State

India: Women’s Work, Stigma, Shelter Homes and the State

by Sujata Gothoskar, 22 January 2013

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Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLVIII No. 04, January 26, 2013

The growing number of women trying to run away from state-run shelter homes has led to investigations into the living conditions which have been found to be inhuman. Many women, especially sex workers and those who were working in bars, have been detained for prolonged periods, raising questions about choice, coercion, violence and stigma in women’s work.

On 3 December 2012, eight women escaped from a state-run shelter home at Mankhurd in suburban Mumbai. The ninth woman who tried to escape fell down and fractured both her limbs and was caught. This was the third such incident in less than three months. Between September and October 2012, 39 women had escaped; many more had tried to escape in each of these attempts but were caught. Most of these women had been brought to the shelter home after raids in beer bars and brothels (Sadhwani 2012a).

After the second escape attempt on 29 October, the Bombay High Court took suo motu cognisance of a news report in which a woman who had run away from the shelter home complained of poor living conditions at the shelter home and made allegations of rape (Sadhwani 2012b). The crime branch was asked to investigate the allegations. The report of the crime branch, which gave a clean chit to the shelter home, was not accepted by the high court. The court appointed a three-member committee to look into the allegations and the conditions of the shelter home.

High Court-appointed Committee

The report of the committee that was submitted to the court said the inmates of the shelter are compelled to live in inhuman conditions (Karandikar and Shetty 2012: 4). The opening line of the report reads: “The Navjeevan Sudhar Kendra is a living hell” (ibid: 1). The report goes on to say there is evidence of men breaking into the shelter home and sexually abusing the inmates. It also talks about the unhygienic conditions and lack of adequate and nutritious food (ibid: 5). It also notes that several inmates have been held there illegally for months despite court orders for their release (ibid: 4). The committee found only two of the 16 toilets and two of the 14 bathrooms in working order; the rest were choked and unusable. According to the report, “this state has prevailed for the past several months and the girls have to wait for several hours for a bath or to visit the toilet. The toilets are locked at night and the girls defecate and pass urine in the open” (ibid). As it is, the shelter home is extremely overcrowded with over 200 women being confined in a place that has the capacity to keep 100 women (ibid: 9).

The report describes the food served to the women as “insufficient, substandard, unpalatable and not nutritious”. It states: “The cooked food had insects, worms and gravel as the grains and pulses were of poor quality” (ibid: 5). The 28-page report goes into much more detail in terms of the lack of facilities of any kind, including those for the health and hygiene of the women inmates. Corruption is rampant and only women who can grease the palms of the superintendent are released; others just languish in inhuman conditions (ibid: 8). The report concludes that the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD) “has neither the heart, will nor skill to run the rehabilitation centre” (ibid: 2) and that most of the inmates are “frustrated” and “suicidal” (ibid: 6). In fact, one of the women did commit suicide in March 2012 (ibid). The report says, “Most of the women expressed symptoms of fear, chest pain, palpitations, anger, abnormal behaviour, deep sense of sadness, hopelessness, lack of sleep, poor appetite, aches and pains, extreme loneliness, suicidal thoughts and a sense of despair” (ibid: 21). According to the report, “Rehabilitation begins by ‘acceptance’ of the stigmatised victims but in this habitat the women experienced a sense of rejection worse than that they have ever experienced on the face of the earth” (ibid: 1). The report also talks about a woman who had become pregnant while she was residing in the shelter home (ibid: 2). “Hence sexual assault or rape cannot be ruled out” (ibid: 24).

A news report quotes a police officer familiar with the Sudhar Kendra saying, “The main issue with the Mankhurd shelter home is that living conditions are pathetic so the women want to escape. There are women inside who have not been allowed to go to the compound for more than a year.” According to the official, “The answer to the problem is to improve the conditions inside the home and to send those women who have been allowed by court to their homes. Security presence can only play a limited role in keeping the women in if they are desperate to escape” (Thaver 2012).

Making Escape Difficult

Despite this report, what the government seems to be concerned about is not how to make the situation in the shelter home better, but how to make escape more difficult. The “debate” and “dialogue” between the home minister and the women and child development minister about which department has to spend money for increased security of the shelter home portends things even more ominous for the women inside (Narayan 2012).

While it is easy to see why the women want to escape, as no one wants to be imprisoned, not at least for a non-crime, it is not always clear why the state as well as a large section of society actually wants to keep the women inside these so-called shelter homes. Is it to “protect” these women from doing sex work or is it to shield themselves from the immorality of these women? To try and understand this, we will have to look at society’s attitude to working women. Indeed, women’s work has always been contested. It has been viewed from various prisms – family, society, employer, morality – but not from the point of view of women themselves.

This comes out clearly in various debates. One of them is around the question of night work for women. The debate began around the mid-19th century when the focus then was, overtly at least, the safety of women. However, the underlying theme was women’s chastity. A subtext also was women’s family responsibilities in that night work would give women the licence to indulge in sexually lax practices at their workplace and that women would not be available for family responsibilities at night. When the debate was reopened, and also when earlier exemptions were taken by employers, the entire focus was on the need of the industry or need of consumers. The electronics industry and call centres are examples of the former; the hospitality and medical care industries are examples of the latter.

Choice, Coercion and Violence

The underlying fear of women indulging in sexually lax practices at the workplace gets translated into a hatred of women “choosing” to do sex work. Any activity that women are involved in that is repugnant to male sensibilities is deemed to be the result of trafficking. Sex work is a classic example, as are women in the entertainment industry, broadly speaking. This repugnance from the male point of view is not about their access to the sexual services of women; it is about women “choosing” to do that at any point of time rather than being forced into it always. It has been pointed out repeatedly by activists that very often women are “forced” into sex work due to economic hardships and vulnerabilities of different kinds, often articulated as majboori (compulsion). However, there is a point in time in the case of several sex workers when they “choose” to do it rather than break stones or wash vessels, where often they are forced into unpaid sex work by supervisors or employers.

In the view of people who denigrate women in sex work or even in the entertainment industry, broadly speaking, sex work per se is so demeaning that women involved in it are either victims, mostly of trafficking, needing to be “saved”, “protected” or “rehabilitated” or, alternatively, they are loose women who need to be taught their place in society, paid less, beaten up, violated and denied any freedom whatsoever. These two images are likely to coalesce, overlap and permeate each other. In this context, it is ironic that society, and to some extent the legal framework insists that all sex work is coerced all the time, while all sex in marital relationships is of the woman’s volition. Hence, the non-existence of the category “marital rape”, and at the same time, the equation of sex work with trafficking.

This is not to say that the global and local entertainment industry and sex industry do not engage in trafficking. They do so in huge proportions. However, it is difficult for large sections of society, policymakers and the judiciary to come to terms with the fact that there are women who in the given context of their lives actually “choose” to work in the entertainment industry, including sex work at least in the sense mentioned above. On the other hand, there is an entire gamut of women’s work that is not related to sex work, but where trafficking is involved in large measure. This mostly involves women, and also men. Construction work, domestic work and fish processing are a few of the many occupations where there is no direct involvement of sex work (though indirectly coerced sex is often a part of the deal or unwritten contract). However, in most of these occupations, trafficking is rampant – locally, inter-state as well as globally. These, however, are left out of the trafficking discourse.

Sex work per se has been defined by sections of society as violence against women. However, sex workers’ organisations have pointed out that such a perspective results in gross neglect of the actual violence that sex workers experience – from the police, customers, pimps and others. On the other hand, there are occupations that are not termed as violent but in reality embody violence of the most grotesque nature. This violence is systemically perpetuated through class, caste and gender structures. They are so insidious that a large section of society takes such violence and oppression for granted. These occupations include garbage collection, cleaning toilets, and manual scavenging to name a few. People involved in these occupations are a huge number. According to the 2011 census, there are still 2.6 million dry latrines in use in India and about 2.3 lakh families must be involved in manual scavenging (Arora 2012). They belong to the poorest, most disadvantaged class and castes that have been deprived of all opportunities, including basic human dignity for several centuries. This is total systemic and systematic violence. However, it is not recognised as such.

This is partly because the continuation of all these occupations in the manner they have over the past centuries is suitable to the interests and sensibilities of not just the elite sections of society or political class but all sections except those directly involved in those particular occupations. The present structure of sexual morality is not challenged in their continuation; in fact structural inequality continues and there is no question of challenging it. There is no question of choice or agency; there is no transgression of spaces; there is no competition; there is no fear that one of “your own” will be contaminated or polluted by this crossing over, even to access the services of “the other”.

Could this be the reason why there is so much contempt for women who are involved in sex work or even the larger entertainment industry? This has been brought out vividly in the last decade in connection with women working in the so-called dance bars.

Women Working in Bars

The work of women dancers in bars was banned by the Government of Maharashtra in 2005 and despite the high court declaring the ban to be unconstitutional, it remains in force as the appeal has been languishing in the Supreme Court for the last six years. The women displaced from working in bars began to seek other avenues. These women were mostly from the most disadvantaged castes and classes, including Bedias, Rajnuts and other communities that have been historically discriminated against and have been deprived of even basic education.

Some of them started working as waitresses in bars. The research conducted by SNDT University and Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW) regarding the impact of the ban on women who used to dance in bars details how the women who earlier worked as waitresses in bars are finding it extremely difficult to eke out a living (RCWS and FAOW 2006). A more recent survey conducted by FAOW for the Supreme Court case indicated that there have been never-ending raids, with some television channels persistently airing them. Besides, some police officers had threatened the bar owners that they should not employ women even as waitresses and that if they continued to employ women, there would be more raids (FAOW 2012). Though working as waitresses is perfectly legal, that option has been closed as well. In reply to a RTI (Right to Information) application filed about the arrest of women and men in raids that were carried out by the police in the western suburbs of Mumbai, there does seem to be a steep increase in the number of raids, especially in 2010 and 2011 (ibid).

Some of the women tried to go out of Maharashtra where they could continue to dance and earn a living. However, the “moral” police began to arrest women who were about to board planes to leave the city. They rounded off these women and put them in the state-run shelter homes. It is from these homes that women are trying to escape – risking life and limb. While no woman should be asked to stay in a shelter home when she does not want to, there should be decent living conditions for those who need to access these homes. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure this. However, the situation is the opposite. Apart from the contempt of the DCWD officials who have the authority of the state, it is also the total power they wield over the women that brings out the base and inhuman elements in them. There have been several serious experiments all over the world that show how total power, especially in prison or custodial situations, gives rise to the most brutal treatment. Complete power over helpless, stigmatised women, together with an almost total lack of accountability to the women and society exaggerates this brutality. The high court-appointed committee’s report talks about this in terms of the “scare and subjugate model” (Karandikar and Shetty 2012 op cit: 5). This requires a detailed discussion separately.

Some Immediate Concerns

It is obvious that the women have suffered trauma at the shelter home. They are not even allowed to communicate with the world outside; their attempts to do so are termed illegal. This sort of treatment should not be meted out to anyone, least of all to adult women. What is urgently needed is a total revamping of the system and structure of the shelter home, as suggested by the report of the committee appointed by the high court. Women in the shelter homes need to be given access to their family members, which has been denied to them. What is also denied is a simple right of every citizen to be able to contact a lawyer of their choice. These women should also be able to access a social organisation of their choice. For 21 days the women are denied total access. A crucial right – that an adult woman cannot be held against her will – has been totally denied. This is against any concept of human rights and basic human dignity. Adults who have not committed a crime cannot be detained anywhere against their will.

The situation in the shelter home should be radically improved in terms of capacity of the home, food, and health and hygiene of the women, including mental health. The women should be provided access to learning the skills they want to and training for occupations going beyond the standard mehendi-design and papad-making. Women living in shelter homes as well as those who were detained there earlier should be given compensation for the trauma and mental anguish they have had to suffer. This would also act as a deterrent to further inhuman treatment of women in such homes. They should be provided security and safety in the shelter homes and their right to speedy release and safe return to their families must be ensured.

However, what has not been brought to the forefront as yet is the manner in which women in the shelter homes are treated by police and medical professionals. In our interviews with the women, they told us how they were made to undress publicly when taken to the police hospital in Nagpada or J J Hospital for examination. Lewd comments were passed, they were touched at inappropriate places, sexually molested and abused. All these things need to change. It is time that we look at these structures and revamp them before more hapless women are implicated in this brutality. In this entire process, it is necessary to focus on the dignity and human rights of women.


Arora, Kim (2012): “Manual Scavenging: I Apologize, PM Must Do the Same, Says Jairam Ramesh”, Times of India, viewed on 11 December 2012, india/Manual-scavenging-I-apologize-PM-must- do-the-same-says-Jairam-Ramesh/articleshow/ 17565343.cms

FAOW (2012): “Women Working in the Bars in Mumbai – Update to the Supreme Court”, November, Forum Against Oppression of Women.

Karandikar, Rashmi and Harish Shetty (2012): “Suo Motu Petition No: 113/2012 between Purnima Upadhyay vs State of Maharashtra and 4 others”, report.

Narayan, V (2012): “Cutting Edge: Inmates Used Cellphones”, Times of India, 5 December.

RCWS and FAOW (2006): “After the Ban – Women Working in Dance Bars”, December (Mumbai: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT University and Forum Against Oppression of Women).

Sadhwani, Yogesh (2012a): “Women Herded Like Cattle at State Shelter”, Mumbai Mirror, 26 November.

– (2012b): “Starved, Herded and Assaulted at State-run ‘Shelter’ ”, Mumbai Mirror, 29 October.

Thaver, Mohamed (2012): “Improve Inmates’ Living Conditions”, Hindustan Times, 4 December.