The NHRC’s advisory opens doors for advocacy against systemic marginalisation of sex workers.

Sex workers at a protestImage for representation only
Features Sex Work Friday, October 16, 2020 - 13:58

Sex workers have been recognised for the first time as informal workers in The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) advisory on the rights of women in the context of COVID-19. The advisory was issued by a panel to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the human rights of women, and sex workers have been included under the section ‘Women at Work.’ 

Sex workers are among the hardest hit populations by the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing norms still in place, they continue to suffer destitution. Unlike other poor populations, many sex workers do not have basic identity documents and are left out of government schemes. This is owing to a lack of permanent address as sex workers are indiscriminately evicted from rented homes. 

Usha* from Theni was evicted from her house during the lockdown. “I did not have money to pay rent. The house owner forced me to vacate and humiliated me in front of my neighbours for doing sex work. I was on the streets with my children, and did not even get the advance back.”

The COVID-19 relief package announced by the government did not include sex workers. Sex worker collectives such as Vadamalar Federation of Sex Workers in Tamil Nadu along with the National Network of Sex Workers and SIAAP distributed dry ration kits to the most desperate sex workers. However, temporary relief is insufficient to rebuild livelihood and address other issues such as inability to pay rent, violence, and poor mental health. Taking cognisance of appeals from sex worker collectives and allied organisations, the NHRC has advised the government to provide relief to sex workers through the Public Distribution System and Jan Dhan using temporary identity documents. 

The NHRC’s advisory opens doors for advocacy against systemic marginalisation of sex workers. Prior to this, sex workers have been perceived as either victims of trafficking or promiscuous women. 

“Earlier guidelines by The National Commission for Women in 1996 and a Supreme Court expert panel in 2016, recommended that sex work should be decriminalised and that sex workers should have equal access to all entitlements,” says Shyamala Nataraj, Executive Director of SIAAP. “The NHRC advisory comes at the heels of the Bombay High Court ruling, that women have the right to do sex work as a livelihood option, strengthening collectives and activists in their endeavour to stop police violence against sex workers, and create safe working conditions.”

The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 equates “prostitution” and exploitation, criminalising voluntary sex workers through the raid, rescue and rehabilitation model. For decades, collectives have sought amendment to remove voluntary sex work from the purview of trafficking and exploitation. The NHRC’s recognition of sex work as informal work is a political victory, especially as a legal document challenging the ITPA’s conflation of all sex work with exploitation. It encourages legal as well as moral assertion of the labour of women in sex work, and a possible reframing of schemes such as Ujjawala that accords compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers.

“Every evidence based analysis of sex work by statutory bodies and court judgments shows that there is something clearly wrong with how the ITPA is framed and being practised, and needs to be addressed immediately,” adds Shyamala.

In addition, the advisory allows sex workers to formally register so that they can get worker benefits. Currently sex workers are registered as women’s collectives under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. It is, however, unclear whether this change means that they can register under the Trade Unions Act 1926. 

Usha celebrates the recognition of sex work as informal work. “I no longer have to tolerate any discrimination. I will be able to say with confidence, that I offer my services for money and that I am recognised by the government as a worker.”

The advisory acknowledges high levels of violence against sex workers and the need for action to support victims. A 2019 study conducted among 1000 female sex workers by the Sarvojana coalition of sex worker organisations showed that over 50% of sex workers faced violence, especially from family and intimate partners. Only 2% of those who experienced violence reported it legally, due to fear of being arrested for doing sex work.

Priya* from Theni was beaten up every day by her alcoholic partner. As she mostly stayed at home during the lockdown, her partner used every opportunity to thrash her with whatever he could get his hands on. “No part of my body is without bruises,” she says. Knowing that she is a sex worker, he lives off her earnings, but brutalises her for having multiple sexual partners. Priya sought help through the police helpline, but they refused to register her complaint claiming that these issues are “normal” during these times.

The NHRC mandates a task force against violence to provide legal, medical and psychosocial support to victims of violence. The 2013 Criminal (Amendment) Law and the Verma Committee extended its provisions on sexual assault and violence against women to sex workers. However, the criminalisation of sex work itself impedes their access to the criminal justice system. The NHRC advisory has deemed support to victims of violence as “essential services”, and directed Protection Officers to act on violence reported by sex workers, addressing the issue of underreporting. 

Stigma, discrimination and violence have direct implications on the health of sex workers, including severe mental health issues and poor sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

*Radha, an HIV positive sex worker from Thiruvannamalai, shares, “I did not have money to buy sanitary napkins during the lockdown, and used cloth during my periods. As I washed the used cloth in the bathing area, my neighbour threw abuses at me, saying that my contaminated blood would flow towards her house.”

Though Targeted Intervention programmes have established strong linkages between sex workers and the healthcare system, comprehensive care for issues related to safe abortion and antenatal care continue to be a challenge. The NHRC has advised continuous access of SRH services to all women, specifically STIs and HIV services for sex workers. This however, continues to narrow down healthcare for sex workers within STIs and HIV, while international organisations such as the World Health Organisation prescribes all-inclusive sexual and reproductive health for sex workers. 

“I have been experiencing severe abdominal pain and irritation in my genitals the past two months,” says Mary, a sex worker in Theni. “After consultation in the government hospital, and disclosure of my sexual history, I was prescribed ulcer medicines. I went back after two weeks with no improvement, but the doctor refused to do any further examination. I was asked to just continue the ulcer medication. I am worried that I might have an infection in my uterus. My menstrual cycle has been delayed for months now.”

The NHRC advisory is a milestone in the sex worker rights movement, to reintegrate sex workers into mainstream society as women workers. 

Shyamala points out, “The NHRC advisory along with Bombay HC judgment calls to question the Anti-Trafficking Bill 2018, awaiting passage in the Rajya Sabha, which conflates all sex work with trafficking, refusing to acknowledge consent in sex work.”

However, recommendations by statutory bodies are often preceded by the law. Despite the 1996 NCW guidelines and the 2016 SC panel recommendations, sex workers continue to be harassed by law enforcement under the guise of anti-trafficking. The NHRC advisory certainly becomes an important tool for advocacy to decriminalise sex work and create safe working conditions for sex workers. But, the onus of leveraging it for policy change should also be taken up by states and inter-ministries to effectuate it in the grassroots. 

Kokila, President of the Vadamalar Federation, says, “This recognition as workers is a victory in our fight. But, I sincerely hope that from now we are treated as equals in society and receive benefits that all women in the country are receiving.”

*Names changed

Janani Venkatesh works for South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP), advocating for decriminalisation of sex work and sex workers.

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