Sex workers are beginning to fight the stigma, violence, criminalisation and citizenship denials that routinely make up their difficult lives.
“We are women first, and sex workers only after that. We want you to recognise sex work as work. Instead of viewing us through the lens of social morality, we wish you would see us for what we are. Many of us are single women, supporting our children and old parents. We are informal, unprotected workers. Why should you and the police treat us as criminals?”
Collectives of sex workers, speaking for an estimated three million workforce, are emerging slowly from the shadows across India. I recently met sex worker representatives in Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata, and encountered everywhere women of substance, energised with a new-found and hard-won confidence as they battle stigma, violence, criminalisation and citizenship denials that routinely make up their difficult lives.
Their biggest complaint is against the law which regulates sex work in India today: the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956. This does not criminalise sex work per se, but, as the Lawyers’ Collective that works for sex workers’ rights points out, it results in ‘de facto criminalisation through prohibition of soliciting, brothel and street work’, and this ‘has effectively undermined sex workers’ ability to claim protection of law’. The law is defended as being necessary to prevent trafficking and child prostitution. But there should be specific robust laws to curb these evils, and not the deployment of a statute that is widely misused to harass adult women who voluntarily pursue this profession.
The law first prohibits brothels, or deems premises shared by sex workers illegal, including their residence. Often sex workers are evicted from the only roof they had with their children in the name of ‘closing down brothels’. The law also punishes adults who live off the earnings of sex workers. In all the consultations I attended, women complained that this criminalises even their children as soon as they cross the age of 18, and old parents and younger siblings who many sex workers support.
However, sex workers are beaten down most by Section 8 of ITPA, which punishes soliciting, or drawing attention of potential customers from a visible, conspicuous site, whether in a street or private dwelling. As the Lawyers’ Collective explains: “The criminalisation of soliciting is one of the most obvious legal problems for sex workers… Sex workers are arrested even when they’re not soliciting. Most plead guilty finding themselves in a vicious cycle of criminalisation.”
This law also arms the police with wide powers to search and raid premises suspected of serving as brothels. The recent raid by Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti on the homes of some African women in the South Delhi enclave Khidki was an unusual example of police restraint, but the Minister angrily demanded that the police raid their apartments nonetheless. The Law Minister is a lawyer by training, but still he seemed unaware that even if sex work was indeed under way, it is not barred by law. Magistrates are authorised to order arrests and removal, close down brothels and evict sex workers, and involuntarily house them in official rescue and rehabilitation homes which are most often low-resourced, undignified and violent spaces, where they are forcefully and abruptly separated from their children.
Sex workers do not just want the repeal of this law that unjustly criminalises their work and exposes them to violence from police and sometimes vigilante groups, they also seek the basic rights of citizens and workers. Most citizenship entitlements bypass sex workers, except sometimes in ironical ways. Paradoxically, fear of the spread of HIV-AIDS led governments to open health clinics in red-light areas. But sex workers point out that these clinics only offer treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. “Are we not women, and human beings? Do we not contract other illnesses which also should be treated? But the government only wants to treat us for sexually transmitted diseases, not for our sake, but for the sake of protecting the rest of society!”
Many sex workers spoke to me of their difficulties in getting their children admission in schools, because the school form has a column requiring them to indicate the child’s father’s name. They do not want to admit to school authorities about their profession to protect their children from its stigma. Indeed, many children themselves are unaware of what work their mothers do, unless their mothers work from a brothel. A long overdue reform is that school forms across the country should require only the child’s mother’s name. What brothel-based sex workers want most for their children are special night-care child centres where children can sleep protected during the work hours of their mothers. As the children grow older, admission in residential schools would enable them to pursue further education.
A large presence in the dharnas in Jantar Mantar, Delhi, organised by the Pension Parishad demanding a universal old-age pension was of sex worker organisations. No wonder, because what every sex worker fears most is old age, when they are left with no way to earn a living, except if they introduce a young daughter into their trade. But few would want to see their daughters suffer the violence and shame that they live through, undeserved because they are women and workers just like any other.