Do you think India should give sex workers rights and aid, or just aid? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
“I need work, not aid.” – Mumtaz, sex worker living in Mumbai.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically reduced sex workers’ income, leaving some unable to provide for themselves and their families. In the wake of the global health crisis, during the lockdowns, many in the sex industry were actively looking for other work, but few were successful due to societal stigma associated with sex work and sex workers even being blamed for exacerbating the pandemic. Without access to necessary resources, some of them now face extreme poverty. Supiya, a sex worker in Mumbai, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week “I am getting customers once in two days now and making about 150 rupees ($2) per client. How will I survive on this?”
It is estimated that the current number of sex workers across India is around 800,000. Some take loans to survive from private individuals at high interest rates, but with the end of the crisis nowhere in sight, there is little chance they will be able to pay them back.
In the midst of the pandemic, a U-turn from India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has plunged sex workers into further uncertainty.
The NHRC had initially advised that sex workers should be recognized as informal workers. In so doing, sex workers would be able to access financial support from state governments and aid from a $23 billion fund.
But the NHRC this week reversed its initial opinion, instead issuing a statement recommending sex workers not be recognized as workers but given aid on “humanitarian grounds.”
Pressure from campaigners who questioned the initial advisory and raised concerns around the legitimization of sex trafficking, prompted the U-turn.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:
Prostitution is legal in India but most related activities such as soliciting, pimping, and running a brothel are crimes.
“If they are not defined as workers, it is a failure to recognise the work they do to earn their livelihood and feed their families,” said Smarajit Jana, founder of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective of sex workers in Kolkata.
“This is a setback … they will not be recognised as full-fledged citizens of the country, having full access to various citizenship documents and right to social and development schemes,” added Jana, whose group represents 65,000 sex workers.
Though brothels in India are prohibited by law, in practice they are just limited to specific parts of a town, such as the Kamathipura neighborhood in Mumbai, a well-known red-light district located in the capital. This particular area has experienced tough police crackdowns in recent years, but many more brothels remain in India’s towns and cities. Kolkata, Gwalior and New Delhi are some of the country’s other largest centers of sex industry.
Anti-trafficking campaigners like Sunitha Krishnan, founder of anti-trafficking charity Prajwala, said “Running a brothel is illegal. Giving women their workers’ rights completely misses the mark … brothels have a large number of trafficked women or those (who are) coerced.”
However, this view is contested by sex worker advocates who posit that the majority of sex workers aren’t victims of exploitation but are made vulnerable to abuse through a lack of rights and protection.
While trafficking for sexual exploitation remains an issue in India, the exploitation of domestic victims of forced labor is the most common form of trafficking. There are an estimated eight million trafficking survivors in the country, the majority of whom have experienced bonded labor in contexts such as brick kilns and agriculture. Some women and girls from Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are trafficked to India and subjected to both sex and labor trafficking. With women and girls fleeing Afghanistan following the Taliban assuming power, it is likely that traffickers will be able to exploit their desperation.
The debate over sex workers’ rights and prostitution in India, within and outside the anti-trafficking space, remains a polarizing issue, affecting the lives of thousands, mainly women and children.
What should be clear is that sex workers, like any group affected by decisions on their rights, must be consulted, listened to and empowered if we are to see just laws governing their rights.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below!