Nearly 10,000 sex workers have written an open letter condemning an appeal from a prominent anti human trafficking activist, Sunitha Krishnan, to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to withdraw its advisory to the Union government that sex workers be treated on par with informal workers.
On October 7, the NHRC issued a “human rights advisory” on protection of women’s rights in the context of COVID-19 following an impact assessment done by a Committee of Experts. It recommended that State governments must provide assistance and COVID-19 relief to sex workers; recognise their vulnerability to domestic violence and ensure their protection; and ensure free testing and treatment for COVID-19. But the most important and landmark suggestion was on recognising sex work as work and including women who perform it as informal workers.
But days following the advisory, Sunitha Krishnan, founder of the NGO Prajwala, wrote to the NHRC calling its advisory on sex workers an “aberration”, that there was “no concept of sex work”, and that recognising it as such would be tantamount to “human rights violation” and legitimising sexual exploitation. This letter sparked widespread outrage among sex workers’ collectives, academics, gender rights activists, lawyers and public health experts.
On Monday, the total number of signatories to the open letter crossed 11,000, and more endorsements were pouring in. These included 1,000 gender rights activists and over 250 NGOs such as the Forum Against Oppression of Women, ANANDI, National Alliance for People’s Movement, Naz Foundation, and Lawyers’ Collective. They criticised Prajwala’s letter for “its myopic and moralistic objection” to the rights of vulnerable communities such as sex workers.
Their letter states, “By denying the fact that these women are citizens and workers, instead reducing them merely to victims of sexual violence the [Prajwala’s] letter divests them of basic rights and entitlements that fundamentally acknowledge that they are even human...and ignores the voices of millions of adult women who independently sustain themselves and their families through sex work.” It adds that Prajwala makes the oft repeated mistake of conflating voluntary adult sex work with sexual exploitation.
Aarthi Pai, lawyer and executive director, Sangram Sanstha, explains the import of the NHRC advisory according the status of informal workers to sex workers and says, “The understanding of sex workers as informal sector workers is a move forward not just for the immediate pandemic but also the medium to long-term benefit that they will get. Immediately, this makes sense because there is a call from informal workers for some sort of compensation package in light of unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several State governments have been looking at this. There is an important SC judgment that says that even if sex workers don’t have documentation, they must get ration, which is extremely helpful. But their recognition as out-of-work workers and their right to unemployment benefits moves the discussion to the next level, where you are looking at their demands through the rubric of worker’s rights.”