Human Rights

Impoverished Women Without Identity Documents Turn to Prostitution in Sri Lanka


Article Highlights

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Marry, a Sri Lankan woman who guesses she is in her 40s, is a prostitute in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

Marry knows little about herself. She does not have a birth certificate or a National Identity Card, a compulsory document for all adults here that must be carried at all times. So she says she made up her own name and guesses she is around 40.

“I do not know from where I am, who my parents are, even my name,” she says.

She can speak both Sinhala and Tamil, the official languages of Sri Lanka, as well as English. Because she knows Tamil best, she guesses her ethnicity must be Tamil, but she has no way of knowing.

Marry says that the earliest memory she has is working as a servant in a rich family’s bungalow when she was 10 or 12. But a few months later she reached puberty, and her employer started mistreating her.

“I can remember that lady did not give enough food for me,” she says. “I started to eat whatever I stole from them. Because of that, she started to hit and punish me every day. Finally, I decided to [leave] that bungalow.”

Marry starts to cry, then begins to speak in English.

“My story started from the date which I came out [of] that bungalow,” she says. “I met that heartless man at the bus stand around 6 in the evening.”

She says that at first, he treated her kindly.

“I could not remember the name of that man,” she says. “He came to me and talk to me nicely. He promised to help me to find a job in Colombo. He asked me to come with him, and both of us got onto a bus. After a one-hour journey, we got down [off] the bus and went to a small room around 8 o’clock at night. First, he gave me some food.”

But then Marry says there was a sudden change in his demeanor.

“He raped me three times in that miserable night,” she says loudly.

She says he took her the rest of the way to Colombo the following morning and introduced her to a place where he said she would be able to get a job. The people there gave her a new dress, soap, powder and perfume. She says she was happy and stayed there.

But after two days, she realized that the place was a brothel where prostitutes worked. She says she had nowhere else to go, so she became a prostitute too.

“I started to work as a prostitute when I was very young,” she says. “If I explain my whole story, it will take at least two days.”

She says she worked as a prostitute in brothels throughout the city.

“I was there for [a] few years,” she says. “With the support of my customers, I changed the places [a] few times.”

She says she had many run-ins with the police, as prostitution is illegal in Sri Lanka.

“I could not remember the number of times which police arrested me,” she says. “I was in the police custody nearly 10 [to] 15 times.”

When she was in her late 20s, she received a foreign customer who introduced her to other foreign customers as well. In that period, she says she stayed in good hotels, improved her English and earned a lot of money.

But she says she couldn’t open a bank account because of her lack of birth certificate, National Identity Card and permanent address, so she spent most of her money on liquor and cigarettes. She says she tried to get a National Identity Card once but was unsuccessful, though she can’t remember why.

“I did not save money,” she says. “I spen[t] all the money I earned.”

As she got older, she says foreign customers with tastes for younger girls lost interest in her. She moved in with a friend who also worked as a prostitute. She says she would venture out at night to find customers because she was too old to work in a brothel.

“It is a difficult task,” she says. “We have to stay in the roads to find customers, hiding from police. In my age, now I cannot work in a professional prostitution centers.”

Two years ago, Marry was searching for a new place to stay but could not afford one. She then made a friend in the streets who also worked as a prostitute and let her stay with her in a group of huts on the beach by a train station. To this day, she works enough to earn money for at least one meal a day.

“Now I earn 1,000 to 2,000 rupees [SLR ($9 to $18 USD)] per day,” she says, her voice becoming frail. “But recently, I cannot find customers every day. I have to earn at least to buy a lunch packet for me.”

Marry still lives in the huts in Bambalapitiya, an area located in the heart of Colombo. The enclave is home to many upper-class families, government offices, shopping complexes and high-level companies. But on a stretch of beach there close to the train station stand 22 huts that face the sea. Built nearly 20 years ago, the huts are called “Palpath Niwasa” in Sinhala. More than 50 people, including 10 children, live in these huts, and most of the women here work as prostitutes.

During her time at Palpath Niwasa, Marry says she has begun to find some luck. She met a man whom she considers to be her husband.

“I respect him as my husband,” she says, smiling. “He is very good. He loves me. We were together nearly two years. But we are not legally married. That is not a problem for me. From the beginning of my life, I did not have anyone. Now he is with me. He is my husband.”

The man, 43, who declined to give his name, is from southern Sri Lanka. He is a former soldier, now unemployed. He says Marry supports him through her prostitution.

“Now I do not have a job,” he says. “Marry is supporting me. Both of us need someone to share our grievances. We are living together.”

But he says he wishes Marry could find a different job so she could stop having sex for money.

“I am worr[ied] about Marry,” he says. “I do not want to see she is continues this job. But we do not have an alternative.”

“He asks me to stop this job,” she says. “He tells somehow he will earn money to survive ourselves. But this job is OK for me now. I have experienced with that. I do not know how to do any other jobs. I cannot read or write.”

Women who grew up in poverty and know little of their families or backgrounds say their only option to feed themselves and their children is prostitution. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, are working to collect information on sex workers and raise awareness about preventative health measures. While police officers apprehend prostitutes, public health officials aim to prevent the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, STDs, by offering checkups at government clinics throughout the country.

There are more than 8,000 sex workers in Colombo district, according to Community Strength Development Foundation, an NGO.

Siriyawathi Manike, 50, lives in the hut next door to Marry. She used to work as a prostitute too.

“I do not know about my father,” she says. “But I can remember my mother. I have one sister, and she lives in Maharama. My youngest son is also living with her.”

She says she grew up on the streets because her family couldn’t afford a hut. They used to stay in a bus stop in a large park. When she was 8, she was admitted to an orphanage. But she says she was not happy in the orphanage, so she ran away.

“I think at that time I was around 15,” she says. “I did not have an idea where to go or what to do. I just started to beg because I did not have anything to eat or money.”

Manike says she met a boy on the streets who raped her. At her young age, she says she did not know her rights, and there was no one there to protect her. After that, she says she met different types of people who all raped her. Finally, she decided to work as a prostitute to at least earn money when people had sex with her.

“After few years, I met a man, and he promised me to marry,” she says. “I was so happy. Then I got pregnant. We were together.”

But she says he eventually left her.

“Day by day, the marriage was postponed,” she says with a defeated look on her face. “I got a baby girl. After few months again, I got pregnant. At the time of second pregnancy, he left me. After the delivery again, I came to the road with my kids.”

Manike returned with her own kids to the place where she had grown up – a bus stop. She begged on the streets in order to earn money to look after her children. When her oldest child was around 3, she says she met a foreign couple from the Netherlands who agreed to adopt her two kids and take them to their country.

“I agreed to give both kids to them,” she says. “I thought if they are with me, they should have face the situation which I face.”

She draws in a long breath before continuing her story. After that, she started to work as a prostitute again and came to the huts on the beach.

She worked as a prostitute until five years ago, when she met a man named Sunil Shantha, who was working in a bicycle garage. They now live together in the huts, along with her five dogs and eight cats. Suddenly, she starts to smile as she talks about her children.

“Two years [ago], my two children who are in Netherlands came to Sri Lanka to see me,” she says. “I was very happy. Now, eldest one is 31, and other is 30. Now they send money to me every month. I look after my pets by that money, and I help the school-going children in these huts.”

The other hut dwellers say she helps everyone in the community with the money she receives.

Another woman who lives in the huts, Udeni Damayanthi, 32, also works as a prostitute in order to support herself and her child. She had stopped working as a prostitute after she had gotten married, but she returned to the profession after her husband was sent to jail when police arrested him three years ago on drug charges.

“After I met my husband, I stopped prostitution job,” she says. “I started that job when I was 15. Unfortunately, again I started that because of my child. Now, he is schooling.”

Damayanthi is from the north-central part of Sri Lanka. She used to work in a bungalow as a maid. But she says she was unsatisfied working for the owners of the bungalow, so she left. She didn’t know where any of her relatives lived, so she stayed for nights and nights on the streets.

Now living in the huts, she is looking after another woman named P. Ashoka. She calls Ashoka “Aunty,” but they are not related. Ashoka, 48, also worked as a prostitute, but now she is too old to attract customers and has no one to look after her.

“I do not like to do this job,” Damayanthi says. “Because of my son, I force to do it. I cannot do anything else to feed my child. When my husband comes out the custody, I will stop this.”

Together, all the members of the hut community have constructed a well on the beach for bathing. For drinking water, they collect water from public pipelines in the main roads at night.

“When we go to collect the water at night, police is tries to arrest us,” Damayanthi says. “Police officers knew that we are prostitutes. It is very difficult to hide from police.”

Manike says there are 10 women in these 22 huts working as prostitutes. They agree not to bring their customers to the huts, so the women leave the area every night to do their jobs.

The women say they go for a health checkup every two months at the STD unit at National Hospital in Colombo. They say they also get free condoms from different NGOs from time to time.

Jasintha Ekanayake, Colombo field coordinator of the Community Strength Development Foundation, says that the organization collects information about sex workers, distributes condoms to them, conducts awareness programs for them and sends them to government STD clinics, among other initiatives.

“We conducted awareness programs for sex workers of railway huts Bambalapitiya and distributing condoms regularly,” she says. 

The government has set up STD clinics across the country. Dr. S. Gunasekara, the medical officer in charge of the STD clinic in Colombo, says that a lot of prostitutes come to the clinics for checkups. But he does not know whether women from the railway huts specifically come to the clinic.

“According to the statistics of the National STD/AIDS Control Program of the Ministry of Health, [in] Sri Lanka in 2010, 121 HIV cases reported and 17,818 persons were attend to the STD clinics, out of which 8,985 are female,” he says. “Further, it was distributed 23,984 condoms through in Colombo STD clinics only.”

He says it’s difficult to stop prostitution because of several reasons, such as poverty. Instead, he says that the health authorities are focusing on what they can do: introduce precautions to reduce the risk of STDs in Sri Lanka.