Sex workers, lawyers seek to amend language of anti-trafficking Bill

Their key demand is that the Bill should explicitly exclude adult persons voluntarily engaged in sex work.

Updated - December 27, 2018 02:17 pm IST

Published - December 26, 2018 09:44 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The anti-trafficking Bill, set to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha, has triggered disquiet among sex workers and lawyers about its potential to criminalise all adult sex work in the absence of a clear distinction between the victims of sexual exploitation or human trafficking and persons who voluntarily opt to provide sex to make a living.

The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) has written to Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu demanding that the Bill be sent to the Standing Committee of the Upper House. The NNSW has also urged a “meaningful dialogue” with the communities affected by the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation), 2018, Bill.

Voluntary adult sex work is not illegal in India under certain circumstances, such as when a woman provides the service in her own home without any solicitation. The primary law on trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation — the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1986 — punishes offences including procuring a person for the purpose of prostitution, living on the earnings of prostitution of another person and keeping or using a brothel. But enforcement agencies often conflate trafficking with voluntary sex work and abuse the provisions of the law to evict sex workers from their houses. It is this experience that has stoked fears among sex workers about the new Bill, which is aimed at curbing “physical and other forms of trafficking”; they are urging lawmakers to revisit the language used in the Bill and to ensure that the legislation provides built-in safeguards.

Their key demand is that the Bill should explicitly exclude adult persons voluntarily engaged in sex work.

Intervening during the debate on the Bill in the Lok Sabha’s monsoon session — when the Lower House passed it — Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had sought to reassure Parliament that the government was opposed to trafficking and not its victims and that any lacunae found in the Bill would be addressed at the time of framing the rules for implementation of the Act.

Supreme Court lawyer Tripti Tandon said certain offences in the Bill were “clearly directed” at sex workers and that these definitions needed to be reworded to remove all ambiguity. For instance, the provision that makes the advertising and distribution of print and digital content that promotes trafficking of a person as an offence could result in adult sex workers using digital media to promote their services being sent to jail.

‘Must seek consent’

Sex workers also demand that the consent of a person rescued from trafficking should be a mandatory requirement before a decision is taken to send him or her to a rehabilitation centre. Clause 4 in Section 17 of the Bill, which allows the dismissal of a victim’s application for release “if the Magistrate is of the opinion that such application has not been made voluntarily” has been viewed as a denial of the right to liberty.

A study titled ‘Raided’ conducted by a sex workers’ group called VAMP (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad) and NGO Sangram between 2005 and 2017 traced the lives of 243 “rescued” women after they had been released. As many as 79%, or 193, of these women stated that at the time of the raid they had been in sex work voluntarily and had not wanted to be ‘rescued’.

“The current trafficking Bill... will become a tool in the hands of law enforcement agencies to victimise and harass sex workers,” said Aarthi Pai, who is among the authors of the study and is a lawyer for the NNSW. “Sex workers, therefore, say the government is wrong in claiming that this Bill will not impact them and demand that they be consulted,” she added.

Krishnaveni (name changed), a sex worker in her 30s who spent a year at a shelter home in Hyderabad, was the sole bread-winner of her family when she was detained by the police from a railway station.

“While I was at the home, my daughter reached puberty and was raped by six-seven men; she was in a hospital for a month,” said Ms. Krishnaveni. “There was nobody to help her as my husband himself is physically challenged. My children had to beg and feed him.” Forced to borrow ₹70,000 for the bribes to secure her release, she has since returned to sex work.

“Families headed by single-women, who provide sex to make a living, are affected when they are sent to a rehabilitation centre,” said S. Jana, a member of a Supreme Court appointed committee to recommend ways to ensure the dignity of life to sex workers.

The report recommended community-based rehabilitation through a multi-stakeholder board comprising representatives from the sex worker’s community, a doctor, a lawyer and officials of the State government. This body would examine educational, training and employability needs of women and help them access these. The panel recommended a scheme to provide interest free loans to enable a woman to set up a business as well.

The panel also proposed a slew of measures to ensure dignity of life for those who want to remain in sex work such as providing them a ration card, right to education for their children as well as crèches and day-time and night-time care centres.

The panel called detention in shelters “one of the worst human rights violations” and recommended that even when victims of trafficking were being rescued it was important to let them choose whether they wanted to reunite with their families or preferred community-based rehabilitation.

The recommendations submitted to the Central government through the Supreme Court don’t find any mention in the proposed law.

Activists said that while the law focusses a lot on surveillance and policing, there is very little in terms of the welfare of a survivor of trafficking apart from the provision of her rehabilitation in a shelter, and these are also weak.

“Some of the positive provisions in ITPA are omitted in the new Bill,” said Ms. Tandon. “For instance, under ITPA the magistrate has to look into the background of the rescued persons, which is missing from the present Bill. Secondly, ITPA provides a time period for which a person can be sent to a rehabilitation centre — an interim custody of 21 days until the police prepares its report and a final custody of 1-3 years. But in the Bill there is no time-frame and it says that the magistrate can send a person for rehabilitation for a reasonable period. And there is no review available for this. This means one could be in detention forever.”

The Bill also doesn’t provide a mechanism to ensure monitoring and accountability of shelter homes or revocation of licences or punishment for those running the centres in case of non-compliance.

“Partnership between sex workers and anti-human trafficking units to root out exploitative practices is essential,” said Ms. Pai. This is a model that activists cite as success stories such as in the country’s largest red-light district of Shonagachi in West Bengal where a self-regulatory body of sex workers operating since 2001 helps in tracking entry of minors and in identifying traffickers. This model has also been emulated in Sangli in Maharastra where the anti-human trafficking unit has collaborated with VAMP to rescue minors and prevent trafficking.

(With inputs from Swathi Vadlamudi in Hyderabad )

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