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India’s sex workers win new rights, but still fear police violence

Members of a women's rights group gather in Kolkata on May 27 to laud the ruling by India's Supreme Court expanding the rights of sex workers. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
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A long-awaited ruling by India’s Supreme Court has expanded the rights of sex workers by defining prostitution as a profession, ordering an end to police violence and affirming health and labor protections introduced during coronavirus lockdowns.

Sex workers, long marginalized in India, hailed the court’s landmark May 19 decision but said guaranteeing their hard-won rights will be an ongoing battle.

“The backlash is already beginning,” said Meena Saraswathi Seshu, general secretary of SANGRAM, a collective advocating for sex workers that is based in Sangli, Maharashtra state. “The police are going to start looking for any kinds of arguments not to follow the Supreme Court.”

But now, she said, “when the police do not follow the [Supreme Court] order, we have language and space that we did not have before. That’s our biggest weapon to fight against police violence.”

Sex workers are falling through the cracks in coronavirus assistance programs around the world

In recent years, more countries have moved toward regulating sex work. But despite some changes, the pandemic was a particularly punishing time for prostitutes, who were suddenly without work and excluded from most social services and relief programs.

Unlike in most places around the world, sex work in India has been legal for more than three decades. Related activities such as soliciting, running brothels and pimping remain banned.

The exact rights of workers, 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 with the latest case and the advocacy collective All India Network of Sex Workers.

Most prostitutes do not have identification cards, and therefore cannot vote, open bank accounts, or receive aid and social services available to other trades recognized as part of India’s huge informal labor market.

About a decade ago, India’s highest court heard the appeal of a man found guilty of killing a sex worker. The judges upheld the verdict and launched an appeal of their own: They tasked a team with investigating how to improve conditions for prostitutes while also preventing human trafficking and providing ways out of the trade for those who want to leave, said Tandon.

The consultations lasted years, as a panel drew up a list of recommended measures with input from sex workers. Pushback came from some parts of the government, as well as from groups fighting human trafficking.

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

The pandemic caused a global surge in domestic violence. For victims with few options, abuse has become the new normal.

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

By then, collectives such as the National Network for Sex Workers had been hearing reports of desperate, even starving members, said Ayesha Rai, 31, a sex worker in Miraj, Maharashtra state, and a coordinator with the NNSW. Still, many local governments did not follow through.

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

India’s abrupt lockdown forced millions to walk, bike and hitchhike home. Many lives will never be the same.

There are at least 1 million sex workers in India — many millions, by some accounts — but there are no exact figures because of the long-standing stigmas and lack of formal recognition, said Rai.

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

Critics oppose the legal recognition of prostitution on moral and religious grounds, and they cite high rates of women being trafficked and sexually exploited.

The May 19 ruling sought to clarify the legal distinction between adults such as Rai, who consensually choose to engage in sex work, and minors and trafficked people, 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 about members, and include them in the drafting of any related measures. As far as equal rights, the court said, authorities cannot separate a child from its mother based solely on the woman’s being a prostitute. The state is also barred from arresting and forcing sex workers to stay in “rehabilitation homes” against their will.

The court had harsh words for the media practice of revealing the identities of sex workers during arrests and raids. But it reserved its most stinging criticism for India’s police.

“It has been noticed that the attitude of the police to sex workers is often brutal and violent,” the court wrote. “It as if they are 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 rights guaranteed in the constitution to all citizens.”

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

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

“The state governments will have to take very strict action against the police,” said Seshu, of the collective in Maharashtra advocating for sex workers. “And I think when they don’t, we will have to go back to the Supreme Court.”