Six days a week, Naina steps out of her modest rented accommodation in Delhi’s Mangolpuri area at 10 a.m. No questions are asked, because her family believes she’s headed to her “office.” They know the office is a non-governmental organisation that conducts “HIV tests,” what they don’t know is that Naina is a sex worker.
She has been in the trade for four years, after her husband stopped working and became an alcoholic. Naina, who is not attached to a brothel, meets clients in a room that is rented on an hourly basis.
“I am worried about the neighbours and children finding out, but what worries me the most is the police. They extort money and sometimes abuse us. If the government were to give us some kind of licence, our life would be easier,” she says.
Successive governments have been cautious in their approach towards legalising sex work even as there have been demands from activists working with the sex workers to “decriminalise” the trade.
Kusum, who works with Naina and is the general secretary of the All India Network of Sex Workers, says it is time for the government to legalise the “oldest trade” and for society to shed its “hypocrisy.”
She welcomes the views of Lalitha Kumaramangalam, chairperson of the National Commission for Women, who recently spoke to The Hindu about the need to consider legalisation or regulation of the trade.
“If it is legalised, sex workers can pay tax and work with dignity. We support Ms. Kumaramangalam for her unbiased approach and positive attitude towards women in general and sex work in particular. Legislation designed for sex workers would help to decriminalise sex work and distinguish between sex work and trafficking,” says Amit Kumar, AINSW national coordinator.
While some activists argue that by recognising sex work as a form of work, sex workers will be entitled to protection under labour rights through appropriate labour legislation, others favour decriminalisation.
Mumbai-based lawyer and activist Kamayani Bali Mahabal pushes for decriminalising sex work instead of legalising it.
“Legalisation will increase state interference in the lives of sex workers,” she warns.
According to her, decriminalisation will help address all forms of exploitation, including abusive, sub-standard or unfair working conditions instituted by both state and non-state actors.
“Sex work must not be equated with sexual exploitation or sex trafficking,” she says.
(This is the first in a series of reports on sex work in India)