India’s Supreme Court has 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.
Yet sex workers are now faced with the fight to exercise their hard-won rights amid a backlash following the court’s ruling. Speaking to the Washington Post, Meena Saraswathi Seshu from sex workers’ advocacy collective SANGRAM, said “The police are going to start looking for any kinds of arguments not to follow the Supreme Court. [But now] when the police do not follow the [Supreme Court] order, we have language and space that we did not have before. That’s our biggest weapon to fight against police violence.”
Though sex work has been legal in India for decades, related activities surrounding the sale and purchase of services such as brothel-keeping and soliciting, are criminalized. In practice, this leaves sex workers open to criminalization and arrest driving workers underground where they are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Critics of the court’s ruling to legally recognize sex work as a profession have cited concerns around trafficking and sexual exploitation, prompting the court to make a clear distinction between adults engaging in consensual sex work and trafficked people “who cannot legally consent and be part of the trade.”
The court had harsh words for the media practice of revealing the identities of sex workers during arrests and raids. But it reserved its most stinging criticism for India’s police.
“It has been noticed that the attitude of the police to sex workers is often brutal and violent,” the court wrote. “It as if they are class whose rights are not recognized.” Police and other law enforcement must respect “the rights of sex workers who also enjoy basic human rights and other rights guaranteed in the constitution to all citizens.”
The ruling further states that seeking help from authorities following assault cannot be grounds for arrest, and that sex workers must not be arrested and forced into “rehabilitation” homes.
Learn more about the link between sex workers’ rights and effective anti-trafficking strategies here.