Indian sex workers win new rights, but still fear police brutality

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A long-awaited ruling from the Supreme Court of India has expanded the rights of sex workers by defining prostitution as a profession, ordering an end to police brutality and affirming health and labor protections introduced during the coronavirus closures.

Sex workers, long marginalized in India, hailed the historic court ruling on May 19, but said securing their hard-won rights will be an ongoing battle.

“The backlash is already starting,” said Meena Saraswathi Seshu, secretary general of SANGRAM, a sex worker advocacy collective based in Sangli, Maharashtra state. “The police will start looking for all sorts of arguments not to follow the Supreme Court.”

But now, she says, “when the police don’t follow [Supreme Court] order, we have a language and a space that we did not have before. It is our greatest weapon in the fight against police violence.

Sex workers fall through the cracks of coronavirus relief programs around the world

In recent years, more and more countries have moved towards regulating sex work. But despite some changes, the pandemic has been a particularly harrowing time for prostitutes, who have suddenly found themselves out of work and excluded from most social services and relief programs.

Unlike most Around the world, sex work in India has been legal for over three decades. Related activities such as soliciting, running brothels and pimping remain prohibited.

The workers’ exact rights, however, have always been legally “ambiguous”, leaving them vulnerable to violence, exploitation and run-ins with the police, said Tripti Tandon, a New Delhi-based lawyer involved in the latest case. and advocacy. collective Indian Sex Worker Network.

Most prostitutes do not have an identity card and therefore cannot vote, open bank accounts or receive aid and social services available for other professions recognized as part of the huge informal labor market from India.

A decade ago, India’s highest court heard the appeal of a man convicted of murdering a sex worker. The judges upheld the verdict and issued their own appeal: they appointed a team to investigate how to improve conditions for prostitutes while preventing human trafficking and providing pathways out of the trade for those who want to leave, Tandon said.

Consultations lasted for years, with a panel drawing up a list of recommended actions with contribution of sex workers. The backlash came from parts of the government, as well as anti-trafficking groups.

The pandemic, despite its many challenges, has accelerated the effort for change.

The pandemic has caused a global surge in domestic violence. For victims who have few options, violence has become the new norm.

In September 2020, the court ordered state and local governments to provide sex workers with ration cards even if they lacked official identification.

By then, collectives such as the National Network of Sex Workers had heard reports of desperate and even starving members, said Ayesha Rai, 31, a sex worker in Miraj, Maharashtra state. , and NNSW Coordinator. Yet many local governments have failed to follow through.

In December 2021, judges went further and ordered state and local governments to register sex workers in India’s biometric identification system, known as Aadhaar, and issue them sex cards. rationing and voting.

India’s brutal lockdown has forced millions to walk, cycle and hitchhike home. Many lives will never be the same again.

There are at least 1 million female sex workers in India – several million, by some accounts – but there are no exact numbers due to long-standing stigma and lack of formal recognition, Rai said.

“We are part of the sex work community,” she said. “We are people who provide sexual services. We are part of the service sector. We must collectivize and work for our rights.

Critics object to legal recognition of prostitution for moral and religious reasons, and they cite high rates of trafficked and sexually exploited women.

The decision of May 19 sought to clarify the legal distinction between adults such as Rai, who consensually choose to engage in sex work, and minors and trafficked persons, who cannot legally consent and be part of the trade.

The judges ordered local and state governments to hold workshops to educate sex workers about their rights, conduct surveys of members and include them in the drafting of any related measures. Regarding equal rights, the court said, authorities cannot separate a child from its mother on the sole basis that the woman is a prostitute. The state is also prohibited from arrest and force sex workers to stay in “rehabilitation homes” against their will.

The court had harsh words for the media’s practice of revealing the identities of sex workers during arrests and raids. But he reserved his most scathing criticism for the Indian police.

“It has been noted that the attitude of the police towards sex workers is often brutal and violent,” the court wrote. “It’s as if they are a class whose rights are not recognized.” Police and other law enforcement must respect “the rights of sex workers who also enjoy basic human rights and other constitutionally guaranteed rights of all citizens.”

Seeking condoms or help after a sexual assault, he added, cannot be grounds for arrest.

The Supreme Court is due to meet again in July to hear a response from the Indian government.

“State governments will have to take very strict action against the police,” said Seshu, from the Maharashtra collective that defends sex workers. “And I think if they don’t, we’ll have to go back to the Supreme Court.”


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