Abstract: "Cops are the Real Criminals": HIV Risk and the Implementation of the Law Among Sex Workers in Sonagachi, India (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

12893 "Cops are the Real Criminals": HIV Risk and the Implementation of the Law Among Sex Workers in Sonagachi, India

Thursday, January 14, 2010: 2:30 PM
Pacific Concourse O (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Toorjo Ghose, PhD , University of Pennsylvania, Assistant Professor, Philadelphia, PA
Background: The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) in India allows women to engage in sex work, but criminalizes the sharing with others, of any money earned from sex work encounters. Described by scholars as one of the legislative successes of the Indian liberal feminist movement in the 1980s, the ITPA seeks to prevent pimps and brokers from being beneficiaries of sex work. Scholars have pointed out that there are unintended consequences to the manner in which “laws in the books” get implemented on the streets. This study examines the vectors influencing HIV risk that originate in the implementation of the ITPA by the police in Sonagachi, India, one of the largest red light areas in Asia. We examine the manner in which the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a peer-based HIV intervention program run by sex workers has engaged with the police to undermine coercive implementation of the ITPA, to ultimately reduce HIV risk.

Methods: In-depth qualitative interviews were conducted among 70 female sex workers involved in DMSC in 2008 and 2009. Interviews were conducted in Bengali and Hindi, the subjects' native languages. Subjects were recruited using convenience sampling methods through DMSC's membership list. Documents published by DMSC were analyzed QSR N6 was used to analyze the data.

Results: We found that the police utilize the ITPA to: 1) arbitrarily arrest sex workers who support families with their earnings, 2) arrest cohabitating “babus” (contextual husbands), and sex workers' children, and 3) conduct raids into the community to rescue underage sex workers. We found that being forced to have unprotected sex with the police to secure their release increased the HIV risk environment for sex workers and their family members. To counteract the coercive implementation of the ITPA, DMSC participants 1) engage in systematic collective action strategies to force the release of arrested community members, 2) displace the police from the role of guardians of underage sex workers by establishing a procedure for preventing their exploitation, and 3) enter into negotiations with police officials by ensuring their participation in a community action board that meets regularly. The results indicate that by establishing a methodical mobilizational process, a systematic procedure for protecting underage children, and a regular forum for communication with the police, DMSC has systematized its HIV risk reduction strategies in response to police action based on the ITPA.

Conclusion: The findings have important implications for legal and policy interventions to reduce HIV risk in sex work communities. We argue that liberal feminist strategies in India that sought to change laws have had dire consequences for women on the streets, specifically for the HIV risk environment confronting sex workers. Structural interventions intended to reform policy in order to reduce HIV risk need to address issues surrounding the street-level implementation of policy. Moreover, reforming laws like the ITPA necessitate resources that community-based programs such as DMSC may not have access to. DMSC's response to the arbitrary implementation of the ITPA, constitute a street-level intervention model that re-formulates the coercive implementation of policy.