Ask Padma how she is doing. Her usual reply is, “Sab theek hai” (All is well). She looks picture perfect – attractive, beautiful smile, carefree. We cannot take our mind off her livelihood though, and say, “Take care”. We try not to think of our own inadequacies in supporting her.

Public images of women engaged in commercial sex are constructed through a range of prisms, flexibly located to suit our standpoints. She is: victim, survivor, sex worker, sexual deviant, sexually liberated, exploited, easy, lazy, sacrificing and so on.

Padma’s story reflects just one of the varied narratives of women currently or formerly engaged in commercial sex. It nudges us to reflect on wellbeing, in a context marked with social and gender discrimination, disadvantage and violence.

When she was 12, Padma’s father sold her to a trafficker – who later became her intimate partner and fathered her children. He also had another intimate partner, who looked after the household chores and children. He had worked out a neat arrangement; he negotiated with Padma’s customers and handled payments.

When customers were harsh with her, he tended her back to health. He taught her to speak English – since it attracted better paying customers. She earned enough to run the home, and purchase a house, which was registered in the name of her partner and the other woman, as a matter of convenience since Padma was away mostly. When seeds of doubt disturbed her, she reminded herself that she had nowhere else to go anyway: this was her family.

All was well till Padma began fearing that her daughter may lean towards commercial sex. She decided to stop earning from commercial sex. She imagined her partner could take up a job and she would open a beauty salon with the money he saved from her earnings. Her partner tried to cajole her out of her plan – the children were still young, they needed the stable income. But she was adamant, so was he. He physically threw her out of the home, and the children were informed about their mother’s ‘immoral’ ways.

Padma now needed to prove to her children, the state authorities, school teachers and neighbours that she was a capable mother, so her children could be restored to her. She proposed a plan to us, i.e., the child welfare authorities, civil society agencies, police and lawyers. She would require temporary financial support for rental accommodation, where the children could live with her, and for their convent education. In the meantime, we could help her develop skills for other livelihood opportunities that could fetch her an income adequate to look after herself and her family.

It was a good plan, but owing to limited resources, we proposed an alternative: till she was economically independent, we would arrange for shelter in a government or voluntary-run home or a hostel, admit the children to an institution, and help her learn new skills and find employment, while attempting to claim her property rights. However, this was at the cost of her freedom, her children’s loss of a normal childhood, and loss of control over her agency and life. We had nothing more to offer her, though we wished we had.

For women like Padma, a mix of social isolation, discrimination, stigma, economic disadvantage, and violence characterise their lives even before they are initiated into commercial sex. Society distances her for chasing better job opportunities, falling in love with someone exploitative or outside her caste and community, and for contravening domestic boundaries to escape violence, and oppression.

As a consequence, her safety is neglected, and she is blamed. We – citizens, government, and civil society agencies constituted to help, often fail to recognise her as a victim of a series of crimes. Instead, the notion “She asked for it!” is reinforced, so often that she internalises the blame. Subsequently moving to the fringes of society, she stops exercising her rights and agency to access even basics like healthcare, legal aid, family and other forms of support.

In order to cope with her past and present, she fluctuates between extremes – resisting commercial sex while trying to normalise it. When she isn’t resisting, she downplays the humiliation and force, and tells herself she does not deserve better. The repercussions are many – depression, a warped self-image, self-hate, helplessness, sexually transmitted diseases, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and high-risk behaviours like unprotected sex, or knowingly accepting physically and sexually abusive customers.

Moving out of commercial sex does not mark the end of the struggle. It brings new ones, such as living in fear of being recognised, physical illness, and loneliness, stigma and economic marginalisation.

Most importantly, it entails giving up control over one’s life. Indian law offers protective ‘custody’ to women exploited through commercial sex, and there are schemes to provide institutional support, whereby they live in custody-like settings. While the goal is that of social reintegration, these schemes instead of empowering women, dictate a set of rules and norms women must abide by in order to receive support.

Social and economic control over one’s life, and safety, are integral for wellbeing. While women are offered support for shelter, employment, child support and legal aid, there is little to no psychosocial support and mental healthcare services that they receive; when they do the support is little, inaccessible or unaffordable.

Wellbeing comprises and is influenced by a range of factors which include freedom from stigma and violence, safety, good health, being able to look at oneself without shame and guilt, economic independence, community support and autonomy in making one’s own life decisions.

A closer look at women who have been able to inch towards being well indicate some key social support pathways, such as having a partner, support through government programmes and policies, and community-based rehabilitation support. It is essential to provide economic support, however, it is also imperative to facilitate finding acceptance and belonging with family if possible, and community at large.

If we do believe that the responsibility for the psychosocial wellbeing of our women rests with us, we must work towards facilitating that change. It must begin with communicating empathetically the keenness and intention to help them assert their right to support and regain their agency.

More importantly, women exiting commercial sex must be made equal participants in deciding the nature of support needed by them. For instance, at a consultation I was attending, a woman remarked on the modest suite-like accommodation, saying this is how our ‘shelter homes’ should be, open and welcoming like a home.

Lastly, women exiting commercial sex must be provided the support for reconstructing and reclaiming their lives, as citizens and members of the families and communities. Until such measures are taken women living in situations of violence will continue to be trapped in those vicious cycles.

As for Padma, in the absence of support that did not take away her agency, she found her own way out, resuming commercial sex. She gave up contesting for the custody of her children. Her world hurt, but she knew no other way to cope. Our ‘normal’ world hurt more, it debilitated. For her, all is more or less well again. But not for us, it should not be.

Sharon Menezes, Ph.D, is faculty with the Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Joint Project Director, Prayas.

Curated by Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy