Xiao Liu went into prostitution when her child was only two.
Liu, 43, who declined to give her real name, used to work in a chemical factory in her home town in Sichuan, but she was laid off after it went bankrupt more than 10 years ago and was struggling for a living.
“I went into this because we had no money,” she said. “My husband didn’t earn much but we had to survive somehow. I have no diplomas, no skills, what could I do?”
Liu had considered working as a cleaner or waitress, but the meagre income of several hundred yuan would not be enough to pay for rent, bills and her child’s education, she said.
But life as a prostitute in Wuhan was tougher than she thought. Verbal and physical abuse from clients is common, and some clients just slip away without paying. Fearing arrest for prostitution, Liu never dared to report such cases to the police.
She was arrested twice: once she was detained for 10 days, another time, she was given a year in a re-education-through-labour camp. On one of those occasions, police forced her to pose next to a condom for a photograph they needed as evidence of prostitution. She refused and was beaten.
She regularly bribes local police so they will not harass her too much. Liu gives them cash-filled hongbao (red packets) and cigarettes, and sometimes provides them with free sex.
“Otherwise, when they come back in uniform the next day, what are you going to do? Do you want to stay in the business?” she said.
Liu is just one of an estimated four million to six million sex workers on the mainland who are subject to arbitrary abuse by their clients and police, as highlighted in a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch  released on Tuesday.
The report, based on 140 interviews with sex workers, clients, police, public health officials and NGO workers, found that sex workers are vulnerable to public health risks and police abuse, including arbitrary arrests and fines, beatings and torture.
Sex workers arrested are usually fined or subject to short periods of detention, although repeat offenders like Liu could be detained for up to two years.
The report says police crackdowns tend to lead to more police brutality and abuse of sex workers.
Meng Xiang, also a pseudonym, used to run a Wuhan massage parlour. She said that during one raid, police smashed windows, televisions, tables and chairs and forced sex workers to pose for photos naked and beat them when they refused to co-operate. She was detained for 15 days because she did not pay protection fees to police.
Afraid of getting caught, many sex workers do not carry condoms, the report says, further increasing their own and public health risks.
The report says many sex workers are also coerced into HIV testing, but the results are often withheld from them and disclosed to third parties.
“While many of these practices violate Chinese law as well as international human rights law, the government is doing far too little to bring an end to the abuses or to ensure that women in sex work have access to health services,” it said.
The report says most women engaged in sex work are rural migrants and are driven into prostitution due to poverty and a lack of economic and educational opportunities. Gender inequality is also a key factor, it says.
Meng, who used to be a farmer, told the South China Morning Post she went into prostitution only after her divorce to support her two children and her younger siblings. She said prostitution paid nearly 10 times more than jobs in factories, shops or restaurants.
Human Rights Watch recommended that the government legalise solicitation, end crackdowns and prohibit arbitrary arrests and detentions. It also urged police to stop the use of force, coerced confessions and torture of sex workers and said HIV tests should be voluntary and results should be given to those tested.
Rights campaigner Ye Haiyan said that if the government could help rural residents gain employment and develop rural enterprises, it would prevent more women from entering prostitution.
“We’re poor and have no choice but to use our bodies to support our family,” Meng said. “Who in the right mind would want to be in this trade? I’m just making a sacrifice so my children won’t have a tough life like mine.”