The stigma around sex work should be done away with and sex workers should be considered part of the informal sector, according to Nalini Jameela, author and former sex worker.
“Sex work is different from trafficking and it is a form of self-employment that is stigmatised,” said Ms. Jameela, who is the coordinator of the Sex Workers’ Forum of Kerala. “The discrimination we face when we try to get ration cards or health insurance must end. If there is a legal framework, it will strengthen our voice and we can openly ask for our rights. We are often arrested even without a client present,” she said, while speaking at a discussion conducted online by Raising Our Voices Foundation, a Kochi-based NGO, on whether sex work should be legalised.
But a significant number of sex workers were working within an institution and the entire trade, including, brothel-keeping and pimps, would have to be legalised if sex work was legitimised, said activist Sunitha Krishnan, who has been working against sex trafficking..
Sex work per se was already legal, but ancillary activities such as brothels, pimping, soliciting were illegal, said Mobin Jacob, advocate of the Kerala High Court. “What can be done is, formalise and regularise it by registering workers and bringing them into the mainstream,” he said. Ms. Krishnan also said that selling sex independently in a private space was not an offence, but when it entered a public space in the form of soliciting or brothel-keeping, it was a crime. Taking sex work out of the larger structure within which it existed would be difficult. All government benefits that other workers got should be made available to sex workers too, said Lalitha Satheesh, a board member of the National Network for Sex Workers. Not all sex workers were forced into the profession and there was an element of choice when it came to fixing the rates and time of work, she said.
“Prostitution is one of the worst and oldest forms of gendered violence, and legitimising it would mean legitimising an oppressive system. There is a whole world of force, deception and constrained choices involved, a situation in which you are forced to sell your body because there are no alternatives. It is fundamentally an exploitative trade,” Ms. Sunitha said.
Both Ms. Lalitha and Ms. Jameela pointed out that they have been providing support to sex workers who have been attempting to get out of the system.