A survey conducted in 2013 by the All-India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata found that few sex workers were willing to be shifted to remand homes, nari niketans or other such facilities.
The respondents shared the perception that these shelters were no better than prisons, cutting them off from friends and family. Many also complained of being treated poorly by the administrators and unhygienic conditions in most of the shelters they were taken to after raids.
“None of the women we spoke to wanted to live in a shelter. They saw them as jails. Most of them had families and children… for them, staying in shelters did not mean rehabilitation,” said Dr. Smarajit Jana, adviser, AINSW.
The sex workers suggested that if the government desired to rehabilitate them, it ought to give them a place to stay and offer practical employment avenues. “To think that these women can earn their living and support their families doing odd tailoring jobs is specious. They need proper means of employment,” said Dr. Jana. “If we say there are five million sex workers, we must realise there are 20 million people dependent on them.”
Lawyer Tripti Tandon of the Lawyers Collective described the government’s rehabilitation policy as detention of adult, unwilling women. “This is clearly against fundamental rights and international human rights laws, which do not recognise protective detention. The Supreme Court has also called these homes worse than jails. Many international experts, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and the Rapporteur on Trafficking, have condemned this practice and called upon the Indian government to amend its policy.”
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act prescribes detention of sex workers in a home for a period ranging from one to three years. Meeting the family is almost impossible. Even their lawyers need special permission to see them.
“Women fear that their children are most vulnerable to being introduced to sex trade when they are separated from them. Worse still, women who ‘escape’ from these homes face imprisonment,” said Ms. Tandon.
Sex workers who are part of the AINSW in Delhi were unwilling to leave the trade for professions like tailoring and weaving and to work as domestic help citing low remuneration. Some others complained they were unable to benefit from schemes like subsidised food, education and health benefits for reserved categories and even pension schemes. “If they want to help me, let them give me a ration card. I cannot get an SC certificate for my children, because my husband doesn’t have one. After they enrolled us for the Aadhar card, they took away our old ration cards,” complained Naina, a sex worker in Delhi.
Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) said the government must focus on “social inclusion” and not rehabilitation.
“Their rights as citizens need recognition, they need nutrition, pension and insurance,” she said.
(This is the concluding part in the series of reports on sex work in India)
First part: >It’s time to decriminalise sex trade: activists
Part Two: >Sex workers seek change in law