The Indian Elite Has a Toilet Problem it Doesn’t Want to See

With Joyeeta Dey. This article was published by The Wire on 2 December 2015.

Kolkata: ‘When it’s urgent, I’ll tell boudi that I need to go the bathroom’, explains Mithu as we sit chatting on the rickety bench by her home. ‘She’ll say to me, “Go, there’s no problem,” but I feel shy.’

Having begun work as a live-in ‘maid’ at the age of eight, Mithu made the transition to day-time work after her marriage, commuting into Kolkata from the village in South 24 Parganas where she lives with her family. She is now in her early fifties and works in six different households a day, spending an hour or so cleaning in each one.

The little time Mithu spends in each house day-to-day may explain why her employers have not raised the issue of toilet access, undeniably still a taboo topic in India. Previously, when living with employers, Mithu shared a separate toilet with other domestic staff; but now she is less sure which toilet she can use at work (if at all) and must ask permission each time she needs to go – something which she feels uncomfortable about despite her considerable experience negotiating with employers.

Nevertheless, in ‘urgent’ situations Mithu musters the courage to ask her employers if she can use the toilet: many others lack the confidence and bargaining power to do so. Furthermore, not all employers are as obliging as Mithu’s, and instances of domestic workers being refused access to the toilet, even when they ask, are not unheard of. Rita, the owner of a placement agency in south Kolkata reveals that employers sometimes snap at their domestic workers, saying, ‘We don’t have a toilet. Why didn’t you go at home?’ If they are allowed, she says, they are usually expected to use the separate ‘servants’ toilet’, which is outside the building and often in a poor condition. ‘My girls come to me and say, “We just can’t go there, it’s filthy”,’ explains Rita.

Dying to go

For women unable to access toilets at work, finding somewhere to relieve themselves throughout the day can be a tricky and time-consuming business – especially if they also have to travel long distances to get to work. Commuter trains stations outside Kolkata often do not have toilets at all; and busy, central stations like Dhakuria and Bagha Jatin tend to cater only for men. Where women’s toilets do exist in train stations and around the city, they are often highly unsanitary or pay-per-use (sometimes both). There is a lack of official data on the number of public toilets in Kolkata but it is estimated that there are approximately 200 toilets in the city (170 run by the government and 30 run by a private organisation).

As a result, many women simply stop by the road or in a field, as Mithu used to do; while others admit to going ‘in secret’ in their employers’ houses. ‘Sometimes when I’m washing clothes, I just keep the door shut and do what I need to do,’ says Malati, a domestic worker from Canning, South 24 Parganas. ‘What else can I do?’ Likewise, for Archana – also from South 24 Parganas – traipsing back and forth to the servants’ toilet is unnecessarily tiring and time-consuming. ‘Why should I have to?’ she protests.

Going to the toilet out in the open entails safety risks for women; but, equally, stealing a moment while washing their employers’ clothes can mean being caught and fired. Malati and Archana have heard about employers telling women ‘not to come back’ after having realised what they were doing behind a closed door.

For those unable or unwilling to take such risks, going to work in the city simply means not being able to access a toilet all day – something which is not only extremely uncomfortable (particularly so for women who are pregnant or menstruating), but has been linked with the development of urinary tract infections.

Apart from these difficulties, Mithu believes that the situation has in others ways improved for domestic workers in Kolkata. She explains how earlier employers would throw the plates and cups she would use under the stairs or on the floor – ‘in dirty places’ – but now keep them together with their own. She is also given better utensils, ‘not broken ones like before.’

The shift away from live-in forms of domestic service has arguably brought increased autonomy and bargaining power for many domestic workers; and, in some cases, may have also contributed to better treatment by employers who are increasingly aware of the fragile nature of the employment relationship. As demonstrated by the recent outrage over (a website designed to allow employers to select domestic workers based on categories such as religion and region of origin and which has been accused of facilitating discrimination, particularly towards Muslim workers) there has also been increased consciousness in India and around the world about the treatment and working conditions of those we employ to clean our homes, cook our food and look after our loved ones.

Yet much like how in Europe and the United States immigrant women and women of colour are often understood to be ‘suited’ to paid domestic work, overlooking the immigration policies and structural inequalities that limit their options for employment, domestic work in India remains both task- and caste-driven. The extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste is particularly evident when considering the bathroom cleaner or ‘sweeper’ who is, as Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum point out, ‘almost always exclusively that, and always belongs to the lowest castes.’

A chipped plate of her own

Domestic workers’ everyday experiences of exclusion and indignity likewise expose the inconsistency of West Bengal’s reputation as a progressive and ‘post-caste’ society. Mithu is not only still expected to use separate utensils for eating and drinking in the houses where she works, but also only asks to use the toilet ‘when it’s urgent’ and feels embarrassed doing so, her sense of shame indicating that such requests are ‘inappropriate’ and best avoided. Likewise, Durga – a domestic worker from the Canning area – describes how she is frequently scolded for touching things around the house. ‘They tell me to wash my hands constantly and say, “Don’t touch this. Don’t touch that”’ – suggesting that the notion of the ‘polluted/polluting’ domestic worker continues to hold relevance for upper and middle-class Bengalis, even though the prohibition of caste discrimination has made it socially unacceptable to admit it.

Anchita Ghatak, one of the founders of Parichiti (an NGO that works with domestic workers in Kolkata), believes that rather than having been rooted out, casteist ideas about purity and pollution have instead been ‘modernised’ into a more socially-acceptable discourse about class, literacy, and hygiene – a pattern which has been observed in other parts of India. Whereas employers may have once explicitly invoked caste in order to bar domestic workers from using the toilet (as well as from other parts of the house), today they are more likely to claim that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets and are ‘too uneducated’ to learn.

Rita sympathises with her clients when they complain to her about domestic workers misusing toilets in their homes. ‘When some of the girls come here too, they don’t flush. I walk in and have to see it!’ she says, exasperated. Like many of her clients, Rita believes these problems are the result of women’s lack of awareness about modern hygiene and the functioning of toilets; and, in a way, she is right. There is a learning process involved with toilet use. After all, many toilets in upper- and middle-class homes, particularly those found in modern apartment buildings, have been built in the ‘western’ style and will be at first unfamiliar to people commuting from rural areas or living in less-affluent areas. This is why Rita urges clients to ‘teach’ their domestic employees what to do.

An excuse that doesn’t wash

Yet, the fact that in most cases Rita ends up agreeing to ‘discontinue’ workers at the request of employers who are reluctant to demonstrate how to use the toilet reveals something more significant about the ways in which employers view domestic workers and their labour. Given that it is not uncommon to find domestic workers operating a wide range of technology and machinery (water filters, washing machines, microwaves), employer reluctance cannot be explained by claims that their instruction would be wasted, that domestic workers are ‘uneducable’. Rather, it points to a more insidious belief among employers that domestic workers are not only unaware of hygiene but are themselves ‘unhygienic’.

‘We pour from the same bottle but use separate glasses,’ says Mithu, illustrating how, despite improvements in working conditions, employers maintain physical and ritual distance from domestic workers who they consider to be ‘unclean’. Subsequently, while women like Mithu are at once entrusted with cleaning their employer’s homes, cooking their food, and caring for their children, they are, in Ghatak’s words, simultaneously ‘not deemed hygienic enough to use their toilets or eat off their plates’. Such experiences of exclusion and indignity tend to be missed in studies that use simplistic indicators to determine the prevalence of untouchability, such as whether a person would allow a member of the Schedules Castes to enter their kitchen.

The hygienist discourse is not only inconsistent and contradictory; it is also based on an inaccurate and demeaning characterisation of domestic workers which both overlooks and perpetuates the sub-standard conditions under which they toil. If hygiene is the primary concern for employers, then why do so few invest in decent cleaning equipment and protective clothing for their ‘maids’? Surely limiting domestic workers’ access to the bathroom (where there may be soap and running water) also makes little sense if the aim is to promote health and prevent disease in the home. Needless to say, the situation might be considerably different if the upper and middle classes had to clean their own floors and toilets. Indeed, such work might even cease to be seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting’ and instead be treated with the respect it deserves.

Considering the long history of caste-based discrimination affecting domestic workers in India, and the contemporary forms of exclusion and indignity experienced by Mithu and others, it is not enough for employers to say ‘we have a separate toilet’ or ‘we don’t refuse them when they ask’. If we are to break the taboo around toilet-use and challenge untouchability in all its forms, we must go further by sharing utensils and offering the use of our toilets even when they do not ask – preferably the same ones we use.

Rita’s name and the names of domestic workers have been changed to protect their identities.


India’s Domestic Workers Need a Break

This article was published by the Guardian on 10 June 2015.

Bespangled, sari-clad women thrust their hips and jab their hands in the air to the Hindi pop that blasts from nearby speakers. Mid-afternoon sun catches their faces as they laugh and dare each other to copy increasingly risqué moves.

It is the annual social gathering for female domestic workers in Kolkata – organised by Parichiti, a local NGO – and I am crouched down next to Anjali, one of the handful of women enjoying the festivities.

Anjali lives beyond the urban sprawl, in a village in the district of South 24 Parganas. She commutes into the city each day, cramming herself into the packed local trains that rattle back and forth between Kolkata and its rural outposts, reaching the suburban neighbourhood where she works as a cook after an uncomfortable 35 minutes.

I was surprised to see Anjali at the gathering. On my last visit to her village, she had confided that she had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer, using up her monthly holiday entitlement to attend check-ups at the hospital. Like most other domestic workers in Kolkata, Anjali works seven days a week, with only three days off a month and no sick leave.

Understandably, she had been torn about whether to come to the gathering, knowing that if she did she would have to forfeit holiday from the following month. What if one day she was particularly unwell, or if her daughter was sick and she could not go to work? Her wages could be docked or, worse, she could be fired.

I ask her how she manages day after day, in the heat and in the crowds on the train. “It is extremely difficult,” she sighs wearily. “After I come home, I just lie down under the fan. I don’t even have the energy to have a bath or wash my clothes.”

There are more than 4 million men and women working in or for private households across India, as cooks, cleaners, drivers, gardeners and caregivers, without the basic protections and entitlements afforded to workers in other sectors.

Employment laws do not apply to domestic workers and, while there has been a shift away from traditional “live-in” forms of domestic service (where workers reside with employers, often working around the clock) – resulting in increased bargaining power for some workers – paternalism continues to shape employer-employee relations.

On 18 March this year, India decided not to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No 189) – the first international labour standard laying down basic protections for domestic workers, such as the right to a written contract and minimum wage, limited working hours, and paid annual leave in accordance with national laws and regulations.

A national policy on domestic workers is under consideration, but, for now, the responsibility for regulating domestic work and improving conditions for workers lies with state governments – only 10 of which have so far attempted to address the issue.

According to Anchita Ghatak – one of the founders of Parichiti – the importance of down time for the incredibly busy women she works with is grossly under-appreciated, both in the households where they work and in their own communities.

“The idea of women having time for themselves is not popular,” says Ghatak. “And the poorer you are, the harder it is to get time away from your responsibilities – be it at home or work.”

The annual social gathering organised by Parichiti provides a rare opportunity for women like Anjali to socialise and relax away from the stresses and demands of daily life.

Because Kolkata’s domestic workers are scattered, invisible and, in many ways, far from achieving the level of organising that other informal workers have managed, attending such events also enables women to find out about government schemes and initiatives, and constitutes an important first step towards worker mobilisation.

However, to attend, women must negotiate time off, using up one of the three or four days of holiday that are given to them by employers each month. With such little time off and no additional sick leave, using holidays to attend social gatherings is a risky option – especially for those with health problems and family members to care for.

Meandering back to the main road that evening, exhausted, I wondered what Anjali would still have to do tonight, what time she would get up again tomorrow, and how tired she would be.

The day had provided some much-needed respite for women whose daily struggle for survival too often overshadows their need to rest. But as long as their labour remains undervalued and unregulated, the wait for a better future continues.

Anjali’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Kolkata Rising

This article was published by It Ain’t Necessarily So on 27 February 2015.

As part of this year’s One Billion Rising (OBR) – a global dance demonstration aimed at eradicating violence against women – women’s rights activists and community members across Kolkata came together to rise up in solidarity and resistance. At Jatin Das Park on 14th February demonstrators participated in a variety of dance and theatre performances before taking to the streets to spread the message about this year’s theme: revolution.

Asked why they were rising, demonstrators responded with messages of anger, defiance and hope. Some spoke about justice for survivors of sexual violence, citing the staggering statistic that one billion women around the world will be beaten or raped during their lifetime. Others expressed hope for a future where women and girls would be free from poverty, hunger and want, and where women could enjoy sexual and creative freedom without fear of discrimination and violence.

Demonstrators dance together at Jatin Das Park for One Billion Rising, Kolkata. Image by Lauren Wilks. India, 2015.

I attended the rally with the NGO I have been collaborating with for my research, which works to promote the rights and safety of women domestic workers. Watching placards bobbing out of the pink and purple blur, I thought about the women I’d come to know who experience daily forms of harassment and discrimination while going out to work. I also thought about survivors of rape and domestic violence – women who are all too often asked ‘what were you wearing that night?’ and ‘why didn’t you just leave him?’ I thought about the friend who confided in me at university that she had been sexually assaulted but was worried that people would say it was her fault; and the mother who told me she had had no choice but to have her thirteen-year-old daughter married because she was scared she would otherwise be raped.

Launched on Valentine’s Day 2012, OBR is a global call to action against violence against women that has grown in size and influence each year since its inception. Last year, demonstrators from 200 countries gathered outside courts, police stations, government offices, schools, work places, and places of worship to demand justice for survivors of gender violence.

Cynics have asked, ‘how can public dancing end violence against women?’ But the power of OBR lies in the opportunities it creates for people – especially women – to come together, reclaim public space, and envisage a world in which gender equality is not just an abstract concept but an everyday reality. Like all forms of peaceful public protest, there is a certain power and energy that comes with taking to the streets, shouting your lungs out and making people listen. As we danced and marched through Kolkata’s streets, chanting in unison ‘jabo, nacho, jago!’ (go, dance, rise up), I knew that this was not something to be underestimated.

#OneBillionRising #Rise4Revolution

Sex Workers in Kolkata Celebrate Durga Puja

This photo-essay was created by Mirna Guha and Lauren Wilks. It was published by Routes on 7 November 2014.

Until last year, Kolkata’s sex workers were prevented from joining in with the city’s elaborate celebrations for Durga Puja – the most anticipated Hindu festival in the Bengali calendar. This photo-essay showcases snapshots from a sindurkhela (literally: ‘playing with vermillion’) organised by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in the heart of Kolkata’s largest red-light district as part of this year’s Puja celebrations.

Community members and visitors admire the beautifully adorned pandal.

In Hinduism, Goddess Durga represents the embodiment of shakti, the divine feminine force that governs cosmic creation, existence and change. It is held that Durga emerged from the collective energies of all of the gods – including Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – to vanquish the demon Mahishasura. Durga Puja (‘Pujo’ in Bengali) is the celebration of Durga’s annual visit to earth – understood to be her natal home – which takes place in September or October. During this time, communities around West Bengal construct elaborate pandals – temporary temples made from bamboo and cloth – to house clay idols depicting Durga slaying Mahishasura. The idols are worshipped for a number of days before being carried to the river Ganga for immersion.

Women from the community prepare Durga for her onward journey.

Historically, the social stigma surrounding sex work meant that sex workers were prohibited by police and community members from taking part in Kolkata’s famous Puja celebrations, despite the long-standing tradition that involves collecting clay from the doorstep of sex workers to use in the making of idols (the clay is thought to symbolise men’s virtue). However, after tireless campaigning by the DMSC – Kolkata’s first and largest sex workers’ collective – in 2013 the Calcutta High Court ruled that sex workers would be permitted to organise their own community Puja in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s main red-light area.

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This year’s Puja – organised by the DMSC – was a four-day affair starting on the 1st of October and ending with a sindurkhela ritual on the 4th. During sindurkhela, women smear each other’s faces with vermillion – a red-coloured power typically used to mark the foreheads of (‘respectable’) married women; the ritual signifies Durga’s impending farewell from earth and her natal family. In Sonagachi, however, people of all ages and backgrounds joined in the fun, smearing each other’s cheeks and foreheads in a statement of solidarity and hope for a fairer and safer future for sex workers.

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Next year, sex workers in Sonagachi will organise an even bigger Puja celebration. At the opening ceremony, Dr. Sashi Panja, State minister for Women and Child Development, pledged that efforts would be made to help DMSC organisers put together an especially large celebration for future Pujas.

The reverberating beats of the dhak (drum) are an important part of Puja celebrations. The dhak is a huge drum that is played during Puja and is sometimes embellished with long white or multi-coloured feathers.

However, while sex workers in Sonagachi this year celebrated, others across West Bengal – including in areas such as Kalighat, Boubazar in north Kolkata, Seoraphuli in Hooghly district and Durgapur in Burdwan district – were left disappointed after police refused them permission to host their own community Pujas. News of this decision came just days before the celebrations were set to commence, leaving organisers extremely frustrated. These communities will now have to apply for permission from either the Calcutta High Court or Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee before making plans to take part in next year’s Puja.

Women dance in front of Durga to the beats of the dhak.

Dr. Smarajit Jana of the DMSC explained that the police decision to bar sex workers from celebrating (with the exception of those residing in Sonagachi) marked a huge setback for the sex workers’ rights movement in India, and that while rejoicing in this year’s Puja organised by the DMSC, the fight very much continues.

A sweet-smelling, white smoke wafts through the air as women dance. The smoke comes from earthen pots called dhunochis, which are carried by women as they dance. Burning coconut shells are placed inside the pots along with powdered incense, known as dhuno, to create the smoke.

Established in the early 1990s, the DMSC today comprises some 65,000 sex worker members across West Bengal. It campaigns regionally, nationally and internationally for sex workers’ rights, but is best known for its HIV prevention work – particularly, the Sonagachi Project which uses a community development approach aimed at empowering sex workers.

Dhunochi dancers balance the dhunochis with the base placed on their palms, between their teeth or on their foreheads. They then swirl their bodies to the drum beats while carrying the burning dhunochis.

World Cup 2014: is Brazil’s Sex Industry Crackdown a Threat to Human Rights?

Lauren Wilks for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This article was published by the Guardian on 14 February 2014.

As preparations for the World Cup accelerate, Brazilian authorities are attempting to sanitise the country’s image by clamping down on sex-related businesses.

More than 2,000 websites have been targeted, and prostitutes are being threatened with prison sentences for displaying advertisements in phone boxes.

Fuelling this campaign are concerns that the influx of football fans this summer will trigger a boom in child prostitution and sex trafficking. But, according to Thaddeus Blanchette, an anthropologist who has documented prostitution in Rio since 2004, this view is too simplistic.

Media hype, Blanchette argues, rests on the false assumption that fans will visit prostitutes and that some of them will seek out sex with children. “Underage sex goes on,” he says, “but the idea that gringos go out looking for it is a huge myth.” In Brazil, gringo generally refers to anyone from the northern hemisphere.

Tatiana Mauro, executive director of Promundo Brazil, an NGO campaigning to end violence against women, likewise believes the World Cup “will only increase the visibility of certain forms of exploitation”. She points to a report published by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, which finds no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking or prostitution.

Sensationalist reporting on trafficking and mega-events is not only unfounded, it is also paving the way for a more repressive prostitution policy. During the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, armed police officers stormed brothels in a crackdown on criminal activity. But, according to Ana, a prostitute who experienced the raids first-hand, shuttering brothels forced prostitutes to work elsewhere.

In more subtle ways, sex workers are being marginalised. Rio’s oldest prostitutes’ rights group, Davida, was recently evicted from the city’s downtown cultural district to make way for a boutique hotel.

Funding for sexual health outreach programmes has also been cut. Ana used to volunteer as a representative for the ministry of health but funding for the programme dried up last year. It was important work, she explains, because “girls just think there’s Aids and nothing else”.

In a similar episode of backtracking from the ministry, an online advertising campaign aimed at reducing social prejudice towards prostitutes was dropped after criticism from evangelical groups. The campaign, which featured photos of prostitutes with taglines such as “I’m happy being a prostitute”, was removed from the government website just two days after it went live on International Prostitutes’ Day last year.

The decision, as one sex worker rights blog highlights, “negates the rights of prostitutes to be proud of their work, to speak for themselves and to have access to the kind of health information based on citizenship principles that the Brazilian government itself has championed in the past”.

It is also expected that a proposal to separate prostitution from sexual exploitation in Brazil’s penal code will not pass – Brazilian law regards prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation. The proposal, put forward by Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys in July 2012, argues that the legitimisation of prostitution is crucial to combating the sexual exploitation of women and minors.

Sex workers’ marginality not only renders them susceptible to police corruption and violence, but also prevents them from reporting crimes. UNAids also believes prostitution laws contribute to the stigma around such work, which places sex workers at increased risk of HIV infection.

Nevertheless, fierce counterarguments and international pressure to restrict sex workers – evidenced by proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex in several European countries – make it likely that Wyllys’s proposal will be defeated.

One of the most significant obstacles in combating sexual exploitation is the fact that most anti-trafficking campaigners see prostitution and sexual exploitation as one and the same.

Sex worker rights activists, by contrast, argue that prostitution is an occupation like any other; trafficking must involve an element of coercion and/or exploitation. The label “trafficked” neither fits nor helps those who travel of their own accord to work in the sex industry: it disempowers them.

Blanchette believes the number of genuine trafficking cases in Brazil is relatively low. Even in Vila Mimosa, Rio’s infamous red-light district, he says there are few pimps “in the classical sense”, although many people benefit financially from other people’s sex work.

While the idea of someone choosing to sell sex may seem a depressing and even repulsive proposition, many do this over other options, including more exploitative forms of employment. Ana would rather work as a prostitute than as a maid in somebody’s house where “anything could happen”. For her, the decision to sell sex was neither freely chosen nor forced, but instead shaped by the realistic options she had before her.

Labelling sex workers as victims and undermining their human and constitutional rights will not bring about the change that is needed to tackle sexual exploitation, nor will it help to find the real victims of trafficking.

As Brazil steps up its image-cleansing campaign, it is important to question policies that are justified in the name of human rights and yet come at their expense.

Ana’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Brothel Raids Endanger Rio’s Sex Workers

Lauren Wilks for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This article was published by The Huffington Post on 4 December 2013.

“It’s safer to work in the terma,” says Juliana, a 31-year-old bleach-blonde with a face younger than her years. “There are security guards, doctors and you know you’ll get paid. When I work here it’s like being on the street—I might be raped.”

Under the neon-green lighting of Balcony Bar—Copacabana’s premier sex tourism spot—Juliana sips away at the caipirinha I offered in exchange for 15 minutes of her time. She explains how Rio’s termas—brothels—have been raided by the police over the past year, forcing those who sell sex for a living to work elsewhere.

Juliana does not like to work at the bar and instead prefers one of Rio’s more upscale “saunas,” Centaurus [in the news earlier this month after the alleged visit by singer Justin Bieber]. This is despite the 12-hour shifts and steep fines for missing a day of work. It was a friend who first took her there, recommending it as a safe place to work and make good money. She was 23 and had recently lost her job at a bingo hall after the halls were outlawed by the government in a move to curb political corruption (halls were believed to be fronts for organized crime and money laundering). Juliana now has an eight-month-old son and explains that minimum wage is not enough to feed, clothe and care for them both.

Until last year, Centaurus was a relatively safe place to work. But on June 14, 2012, Rio’s public prosecutor’s officers arrived, armed with members of the Copacabana Police Precinct, and rounded up prostitutes, staff and the owner. They seized $150,000 in cash before leaving.

Juliana was in Centaurus when it was raided but luckily was with a client and managed to escape arrest. She later heard that the police filmed the raid, threatening to leak the footage to the local media thereby exposing the women’s identities unless they handed over more money. Thaddeus Blanchette, an anthropologist who has documented prostitution in Rio since 2004, is not surprised by this. “Blackmail accompanying raids is not uncommon,” he reveals. “It is one of the reasons why I am skeptical of using the police as neutral agents in the combating of trafficking.”

Centaurus was one of over 20 popular sex venues to be shut down in the period surrounding the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012. Raids continue to take place across Rio as Brazil steps up its image-cleansing campaign ahead of the World Cup. The crackdown is taking place despite the fact that exchanging sex for money is legal in Brazil and prostitution has been recognized as an official occupation by the Ministry of Labor since 2002.

Although prostitution is technically legal, profiting from it (by operating a brothel) is not — a point not wholly forgotten by Brazilian authorities. Until recently the police turned a blind eye for the right price but, with the World Cup on its way, raids are being carried out with the additional justification of tackling “criminal activity.” Sexual exploitation of adolescents, money laundering and drug-related activity have all been listed as reasons for the raids with no clear signs of evidence. Similar justifications were used by police in London’s historic red light district in October.

Human rights activists believe that brothel raids are part of a much wider effort to sanitize Brazil’s image. “It’s all about cleaning the city,” says Amnesty International Human Rights Advisor Renata Neder, who believes that Rio is following in the footsteps of other mega-event host cities (such as New Delhi and Beijing) by attempting to conceal its “undesirable elements.” “The city is not seen as a place to live, work or have social relations. It’s seen as a commodity. So when you apply this logic you need to hide the elements that you think make your product less valuable: the slums, homeless people, prostitutes, informal workers and drug addicts.”

One does not have to look far to see the effects of this “hygienist” policy. The Tourism Ministry has already clamped down on more than 2,000 websites that promote Brazil as a sex tourism destination. There have been reports of prostitutes being threatened with 15 years in prison for advertising their services in public pay phones. Countless other “unsightly” groups have been forcibly displaced, sometimes up to 70 kilometers from the downtown areas where they make their living. Renata is concerned that these evictions will continue to pile up as Brazil accelerates its preparations for the World Cup and foreign investments pour in.

For those working in Rio’s sex industry, the World Cup and the accompanying foreign investment is a double-edged sword. According to the Brazilian Tourist Board, 600,000 visitors are expected to come to Brazil for the World Cup. Like many other Brazilian prostitutes, Juliana intends to capitalize on the opportunity by working six days a week at Centaurus (which re-opened shortly after the Rio+20 media hype subsided).

Yet, accompanying the World Cup are the government’s urban regeneration policies and “cleansing” campaigns. Juliana knows that by working at the brothel she is risking arrest and public humiliation. But the alternative is no better. Working on the streets and in bars and hotel rooms brings different but equally serious risks: Without the relative security of the brothel, women like Juliana risk being attacked or raped.

By shuttering brothels and driving prostitutes outside, the police are also inadvertently doing that which they most want to avoid: making prostitution more visible. “Closed houses are better for everyone,” Juliana protests. “We’re not disturbing people that way and it’s safer for us.”

With the World Cup now only months away, it remains to be seen whether concern for the welfare and rights of Rio’s sex workers will prevail against the apparently more pressing concern of cleansing the city of its problem populations. Until brothels are once again tacitly tolerated, Rio’s streets, bars and hotels are the alternative for thousands of sex workers across the city for whom selling sex is a viable, if ever-risky, means of making a living.

Juliana’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Sex and Survival in Rio de Janeiro’s Red-Light District

Lauren Wilks for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This article was published by Thomson Reuters Foundation on 26 November 2013.

Turning the corner onto Rua Sotero dos Reis, a conspicuously bulky camera swinging from my shoulder, it wasn’t long before I reluctantly conceded that it had been a good idea to bring Matheus.

Vila Mimosa — VM as it’s known by locals — is a far cry from the glamorous sex scene of Copacabana. Away from the hubbub of downtown Rio on the west side of the city, the entire neighbourhood is currently engulfed by construction works; it is easy to miss, unless you know what you’re looking for.

The area is also infamous for its criminal gangs; Vila Mimosa is regularly raided by the police for drug trafficking offenses. As a fair-haired gringa (foreigner), I’d been advised not to snoop around. Luckily, Matheus belongs to a local biker gang and his burly presence provided the protection I needed to navigate Rio’s oldest and largest red-light district.

On first sight, Vila Mimosa appears to be nothing more than a jumbled warren of dilapidated buildings and leaking pipes. A mixture of ramshackle houses, laundry services, pool halls and bars clutter the main drag, posing as “respectable” businesses. Matheus explains that, although prostitution is legal in Brazil, running a brothel is not; each of these establishments therefore holds a legal registration of trade.

Despite its unassuming façade, business at Vila Mimosa is thriving. According to the residents’ association, the district receives close to four thousand visitors a day, generating $430,000 USD each month. An estimated 2,000 women work here, providing cheap thrills to a primarily straight, working-class male clientele (male and transgender prostitutes are confined to other quarters of the city). Some work part-time, holding down day jobs as maids and cashiers; others work around the clock.

It is mid-afternoon as we enter the crumbling edifices and business is just getting started. In dimly-lit rooms – some throbbing with neon-tube lighting, some adorned with the odd Halloween decoration – scantily-clad women drape themselves across doorframes and chat in half-empty bars with friends. Stopping to linger between rooms, we catch glimpses of female silhouettes gyrating to Brazilian funk and fawning over the few clients that have arrived early to avoid the Saturday-night rush. Others simply sit around, waiting.

A world away from the image of the “happy” prostitute learning English, or the boutique “love motel” commonly associated with sex-for-sale in Brazil, Vila Mimosa is the darker side of Rio’s sex industry. Prices bottom out at $20 USD per “program” and many of those found working here do so out of desperation, necessity and a lack of real alternatives. It is as close as you can get to “survival sex.”

But for some, Vila Mimosa is a place of relative freedom that offers the chance to earn quick money. Carolina is a prostitute and community activist who came to Vila Mimosa a decade ago, after working in a variety of sex venues across Rio, São Paulo and the state of Minas Gerais. I was introduced to her on my second trip to the district and, as we sat at a makeshift bar on the street where she lives, she explained why she prefers Vila Mimosa to the more glamorous hotspots of Rio’s sex scene.

Despite a grueling schedule, Carolina failed to make enough money in the fancier, upscale places she worked. At one high-end club in Minas Gerais, she was forced to pay 60 reais ($25 USD) just to show up to work. “If I worked a 24-hour shift, I needed seven clients just to break even,” she says. “Sometimes I would work all night and still go home with nothing.”

By contrast, Carolina earned enough money in one week at Vila Mimosa to furnish her apartment; she could even pay someone to watch her children while she worked. At Vila Mimosa, she chooses her own hours and has control over who she accepts as a client. “I don’t go upstairs with guys who are high,” she asserts.

Carolina knows that downtown brothels are safer – only last month a woman was shot dead by a client in Vila Mimosa — but she does not want to compete against other (younger and more attractive) women for business. In high-end brothels, she reveals, clients choose girls from a line-up. Leaving work empty-handed is a risk that Carolina, now in her forties, cannot afford.

Content working at Vila Mimosa, the excitement of the World Cup will not tempt Carolina to work downtown. Because of Vila Mimosa’s peripheral position in the city, the majority of Carolina’s clients are not gringos but locals, and she intends to keep it that way. “I’ve had better experiences with Brazilians, in terms of paying and not paying,” she explains. If anything, Carolina worries that, like the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, the World Cup might lead to a decline in business. “Rio+20 was the worst time ever. Nobody came for a program; they only wanted to interview us.”

When asked about other concerns facing residents, Carolina shrugged off eviction. She believes proposals to build a high-speed train connecting Rio and São Paulo (and cutting right through Vila Mimosa) won’t come off. Even if they did, she argues, it wouldn’t bring substantial change for those living and working here: they will continue to turn tricks at rock-bottom prices.

For Carolina, there are more pressing concerns than the looming threat of eviction. Increased competition caused by the proliferation of “saunas” in Rio’s business district, poor working conditions, social stigma and daily risks to health and safety are just a few of the issues we discussed. The spectre of eviction and the promised bounties of the World Cup are simply not on her radar.

Vila Mimosa is just one of several areas of prostitution in Rio where “the World Cup effect” is likely to be limited. “Everybody thinks Copacabana and Vila Mimosa are the only areas of prostitution,” says anthropologist Thaddeus Blanchette. “But we’ve mapped 279 prostitution points across the city, including Vila.” Little is known about the day-to-day existences of those living and working in these less-documented areas, less still about those engaging in sex work in favelas. But it is likely that life in these places resembles that in Vila Mimosa more closely than that found along Copacabana’s glitzy beachfront.

Like other communities located beyond the beating heart of Rio’s city centre, Vila Mimosa is largely untouched by the development plans that are transforming other (more desirable) parts of the city. Residents are too preoccupied with their daily struggles to fret about the lingering possibility of having to move. Disconnected from the opportunities and excitement found elsewhere in the city, they expect to reap little of the rewards that others are already claiming from the World Cup. Like Carolina, most will continue to sell sex for as little as $20 USD per “program.”

Carolina’s name has been changed to protect her identity.