Everybody was kung fu fighting. Even the sex workers.

CHENNAI — Scorned by society and ignored by the police, sex workers in the South Indian city of Chennai are learning karate to protect themselves against the beatings, robberies and rapes they say are part of a prostitute's daily life here.

“Sometimes I make an agreement with one customer, and then later he tries to bring his friends along as well,” said Kalaiarasi, a woman who works as a prostitute near the Chennai neighborhood of Anna Nagar. “Other times they want to have sex with me and they beat me up so they don't have to pay.”

According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, India has about 3 million prostitutes. But other organizations, like Human Rights Watch, suggest that the figure could be as much as five times higher than that.

Because of desperate poverty, high rates of unemployment and the low status of women in Indian society, these sex workers have few options. Prostitution is illegal, and, recently, efforts have been made to decriminalize prostitution and make clients — instead of just the prostitutes — liable to prosecution. But these efforts have had little impact.

Kalaiarasi is all too aware that it is rape, not business, when a client brings along his friends. But in the past she has never been able to do anything about it because the local police are not interested in the legal rights of a woman who takes money in exchange for sex. In fact, if the allegations of local sex workers and activists are true, the police officers charged with upholding the law are the worst offenders.

“The law never says the policemen can beat them up, they can rape the women, they can abuse them,” said AJ Hariharan, founder of the Indian Community Welfare Organization, a nonprofit that aims to protect the rights of sex workers and homosexuals. “The law doesn't say that. But the people implementing the law are taking advantage of it ... So no one can go and complain to the police.”

That's why, along with 75 other sex workers here, Kalaiarasi is learning karate so she can fight back. So far, Kalaiarasi has only taken a 15-day crash course. But as she and her fellow students kick and punch in imitation of their instructor, you can already see how the basic knowledge of karate — together with the recognition that they have the right to protect themselves — has given them a huge surge in confidence.

Dressed in white karate uniforms and wearing Spiderman masks to hide their faces from my camera, these women are clearly having fun. At one point, Valli, another sex worker, attacks Kalaiarasi with a wooden knife — haieeya! Kalaiarasi blocks the thrust with her nunchaku, or “numchuks,” catching Valli's wrist with the chain connecting the wooden sticks and twisting it painfully so her would-be attacker is forced to drop the knife. Everyone's Spiderman mask shakes with laughter.

While most karate students will probably never have to use their skills on a real attacker, the prostitutes' precarious position in society makes an assault almost certain.

“The clients feel that the women are vulnerable,” Hariharan said. “If they pay, they can do anything [they believe]. We want to pass on a message that this is enough. That the women will protect themselves.”

“I have to keep going out after dark [because of my job],” Valli said. “Sometimes clients misbehave. Sometimes they refuse to pay. What we want is to be able to protect ourselves from hooligans.”

Hariharan hopes that learning karate will not only help protect these women from abuse, but also raise awareness about their plight and cause others to realize that sex workers, too, deserve basic human rights.

“When you look at the [total] number of sex workers, the number who know self-defense is very less,” he said. “But we want to send this message across the country, (to) women in Kanyakumari and other districts of Tamil Nadu, or elsewhere in the country, maybe Rajasthan or Delhi or Gujarat. We want this message to be taken that sex workers can equip themselves to prevent violence against them.”

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