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Everybody was kung fu fighting. Even the sex workers.

South Indian prostitutes learn martial arts to protect against creeps and other bad customers.

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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