Shabnam was 17 when she was molested by a man with no legs. The man paid her Rs 300, and that was how she started selling herself for sex. Kashmir has remained a conflict zone for two decades and the insurgency has forced these women to seek livelihoods in the sex trade. Sex is sold in brothels full of women from Nepal and other parts of the region, serving both Kashmiris and foreigners. Far more controversial are Kashmiri prostitutes who stay underground in a society that pretends they do not exist. While there have been strong Islamic movements in Kashmir since 1990, this period has surprisingly seen more Kashmiri women seeking jobs and going out of their homes. Customs meant to keep women ‘pure’ have not stopped prostitution. Girls are expected to remain virgins until their wedding nights, so some prostitutes turn to other, more unconventional methods to pleasure men. The Jammu and Kashmir police make two to three prostitution-based arrests each month. However, Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country where prostitution is legal. According to the Public Prostitutes Registration Rules, 1921, a prostitute can carry on her trade legally if she registers herself with the district magistrate. She has to fill in a simple application form, file it in person and pay a five rupee fee. Though the state tries its sex offenders under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA) and the sections of its own Ranbir Penal Code, the rules of 1921 have not been repealed.
However, society wears black glasses and ignores these problems. In one case, Chinki Sharma was given a severe thrashing by racketeers — a gang of ladies involved in the sex trade. Chinki was shifted to a hospital. During the police investigation, she told police she belonged to a poor family and was pursuing her studies. She alleged that a sex racket was present in the locality and that three ladies were managing the racket. She said that the ladies had been pressurising her to join the racket but she refused to join them. This is why she was badly beaten.
It is hard to know how many women in Kashmir are prostitutes because of the extreme secrecy surrounding the issue. Shaista Begum, 35, works as a prostitute in Jammu. “Now I am free to do my work. Under the militants’ threats in Kashmir, I would never have been able to do this. The only difference now is that I can work as a prostitute in Jammu, so I guess I am free to do my work. I am not happy with this job but I have to do it because I have no choice,” she says quietly. Dressed in a full-length shalwar kameez (national dress), she appears no different from the scores of other women milling past the Jammu market, hurrying along, arms laden with shopping bags and haggling with stallholders over the price of raisins and vegetables. Her fingernails are tinted with red hues of faded henna. She is one of the increasing numbers of thousands of Kashmiri women and girls forced into the sex industry out of economic necessity. “I never thought I would end up doing this. I will try my best to make sure that no one finds out about me. My hope is that I do not have to keep doing this but it is the only way to earn money. As long as I can continue to keep it a secret, I will keep on doing it. If I could get a good job, I would give this job up immediately but I cannot. I am illiterate. I can do this until I reach the age of 40. Then I do not know what I will do,” she says. Her voice is soft and her laughter rings out, echoing the jingle of the gold bangles that adorn her wrists. Home for her is a one-room house, which she rents with her husband, 45-year-old Ghulam Ali, and three children. She says her husband has suffered from breathing problems for years and cannot walk very far. Her husband’s illness and Shaista’s inability to find a job forced her to start selling her body four years ago to feed her family. She took the painful step into prostitution by contacting other Kashmiri women she knew who were working in the flesh trade. These women gave her the telephone numbers of men who were willing to pay for sex. Now Shaista has built up a regular list of clients — all men between the ages of 25 and 40 whom she meets in houses, men she relies on. She earns around Rs 20,000 a month, money she gets to keep as her work is not controlled by pimps or brothel-owners. “I do not tell my husband about this. I tell him I have a job somewhere. If I did not do what I do we would not eat. If he knew, he would not allow me to go out anymore and would lock me up at home. People would shun me,” she says.
During the Kashmir conflict, a generation of women was forced to survive without husbands, fathers and sons to rely on. In some cases, it is families that pimp out the girls. At one family-run brothel, the oldest girl was a 16-year-old, orphaned when her parents died in militant attacks in Sopore. A relative had married her off to a 9-year-old boy whose father was a pimp. She ran away thrice but each time her father-in-law bribed the police into bringing her back. She finally escaped to the human rights commission. Experts said that if society remains like it is now, they believe the number of prostitutes will increase because the problem — money — will keep on depleting. Only if their finances improve, will they allow themselves to deviate from the flesh trade. Everything is dependent on a good government, the finances of the people and a stable economy.