Progress stalls on sex workers’ rights in India

Sex workers in India protest against harmful anti-trafficking efforts

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Law & Policy

Earlier this year, India’s Supreme Court officially defined sex work as a profession, calling for an end to police violence against sex workers, and for greater labor protections. This ruling expanding the rights of sex workers in India is hoped to better protect sex workers from violence and exploitation, including trafficking, and is a significant achievement following years of advocacy from sex workers’ rights groups in the country.

But sex workers are still having to fight for their basic rights and recognition of their humanity.

“Shelters” for sex workers

Notably, the court’s decision stated that there should be an investigation into homes and shelters where sex workers caught up in “rescue” operations – often led by anti-trafficking organizations – are indefinitely held against their will in traumatizing conditions.

Women held in these centers have been taking direct action calling for their rights to be respected and for their release from these centers that have been described as “worse than jails.”

OpenDemocracy reports:

Just weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, 80 sex workers locked up near the city of Hyderabad rioted against their forced detention. According to a local news report, the women attacked three security guards, broke down the facility’s gates, and walked for two kilometres before being subdued by police. They were then taken back to the centre, which is run by the NGO Prajwala.

Sex workers take direct action

Prajwala is one anti-trafficking organization who runs these types of “shelters” for women in the sex industry. The conditions are so bad that suicide attempts are a regular occurrence according to Prajwala’s own co-founder.

Rebellions from women in these shelters have occurred before:

In 2012, 23 women successfully scaled the walls of a Mumbai home and were never located. In 2014, over 100 women detained near the Hyderabad airport rioted. They smashed up the premises and damaged vehicles, injuring 16 people including four staff members, but did not manage to breach the locked gates before the police arrived.

Only rights will protect against trafficking

The recent riot is hoped to spark a moment of recognition that sex workers are ultimately continuing to be denied their agency and human rights with fatal consequences. There is nothing about these centers that rescue women – rather, these centers perpetuate trauma and harm.

Sex workers in India are urgently calling for their rights to be recognized and to be “spared from police beatings, raids and forced protective custody.” Only this will help protect sex workers from human trafficking and exploitation.

Read more about the links between sex work and anti-trafficking strategies here.

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