The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has kicked a storm by issuing an advisory that suggests “sex workers be treated as informal workers” so that they get the required help during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, activists working towards ending sex slavery are aghast with the advisory as sex work is illegal in India. They see it as an “attempt to legalise prostitution”.
Instead, the activists suggest, women in brothels should be given houses, livelihood options, health services and benefits for schemes meant for marginalized.
The NHRC advisory says sex workers may be registered as “informal workers” and be given temporary documents so that they access benefits of schemes like PDS. In addition, the advisory says that sex workers who have migrated during the pandemic, be given the benefits of “migrant workers”, which comes with benefits like free COVID-19 testing, sanitisation facilities, access to healthcare especially for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, to name a few.
National Human Rights Commission (@India_NHRC), in its advisory issued on Wednesday, October 7, 2020, recognised the #sexworkers as informal #workers and be registered so that they are able to get worker benefits.@NNSWIndia
— Indie Journal (@indiejmag) October 9, 2020
Padma Shri Sunitha Krishnan, an activist who works to end sex slavery and rehabilitate rescued sex workers, says, “To use this situation to legitimize prostitution is despicable. It is against the policies of the Indian government and is a violation of human rights. Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act clearly says prostitution is illegal. There is no concept called sex work in India. If it’s done for commercial purpose, it is prostitution in India. NHRC is simply suggesting that sex work should be legitimized.”
The 2019 report of National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) states that a total of 2,260 FIRs were lodged for human trafficking; over 6,000 people were trafficked, including 4,079 women (1,172 of them were below 18 years of age). Experts say the actual number of victims of human trafficking is much higher than what has been reported.
One in 130 women across the world is a victim of modern slavery and 99% of them are sexually exploited, according to the ‘Stacked Odds’ recent report by Walk Free Foundation (WFF) and United Nations. India has a population of 490 million women, as per 2011 census.
A total of 13 million women in the world have faced forced sex at least once in their lifetime. WFF, which works towards ending modern slavery, has warned nations that people, who lost jobs during the pandemic, may slip into exploitative labour works like sex work.
NHRC’s justification and counter argument
The NHRC has issued the advisory as economic vulnerability of those involved in already stigmatised work like sex work has increased exponentially during the pandemic. Because sex work demands physical contact with strangers, which should be strictly avoided to prevent COVID infection, HIV positive sex workers are unable to access antiretroviral therapy. Sex workers don’t get benefits of government schemes because they do not have documents to prove themselves as workers of any category – organized or unorganised. NHRC has recommended departments and ministries to form advisory specific to sex workers.
Krishnan, however, has criticised the NHRC decision. “In the garb of providing aid to people in brothels, the NHRC wants to ensure they (sex workers) remain in the same profession, and continue to get abused and oppressed. In my work for last 25 years, I never came across any instance, where woman has voluntarily gone into prostitution. She is forced or compelled to get in due to constrained choice.”
Krishnan has asked the NHRC to withdraw the clause and instead avail livelihood options, houses, and benefits of special welfare scheme to those who are into sex work.
Seema (name changed), 40, a sex worker, who has been rehabilitated by Prajwala, an organisation run by Krishnan, says, “I had no parents and my uncle sold me and my sister to a middle man who took me to Delhi’s GB Road area. I had to follow what other sex workers told me to. Luckily for me, police raided the place in two months and I was sent to a rehabilitation centre. Then I was brought here. I am not sure I will ever go to my hometown.”
Krishnan tells, “Girls are trapped in many ways. Relatives sell girls to pimps. Girls are lured in the name of dating or jobs. They are taken to other cities where they are forced into prostitution.”
Caste and prostitution
Caste is one of the determining factors when it comes to ritualized prostitution. Even though ritualized prostitution is illegal, it is prevalent. The caste system as essentially being exclusionary tends to impose prostitution which is socially considered ‘shameful’ on lower caste groups (as in the case of Jogins of Andhra Pradesh) in such a manner that it eventually reinforces the dominance of cultural traditions of which caste system is a part. Women from several lower caste communities are forced to be in this profession in the name of tradition and culture, according to Caste and Prostitution in India: Politics of Shame and of Exclusion, a research paper by Divendyu Jha and Tanya Sharma.
Pranita Sathe (name changed), 30, a Dalit Jogini in her teenage, was offered to Yellama Goddess. She would earlier beg for alms in the name of goddess. Slowly people started to exploit her sexually and she got into sex work. Says Pranita, “I had no choice. If possible I would work as a labourer in a farm and lead a dignified life.”
“Dalit or other lower castes women don’t have choice as these castes are socially and economically oppressed for centuries. If prostitution should be considered sex work then first annihilate caste and all inequalities. First create a level playing field and then let people choose what they want. Otherwise to legalise prostitution is to continue abuse of lower castes women,” said Beena Pallical of National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.