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Recognising Sex Work as Work

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June 07, 2021

What is the issue?

  • As many sections of the society, the pandemic has hit hard the adults who earn by providing sexual services.
  • It is time to consider the demand of granting basic labour rights to sex workers.

Why do sex workers face double burden?

  • Sex work is not recognised as “legitimate work.”
  • They do not become eligible to benefit from the government’s relief programmes.
  • Sex workers in India have been asking for decriminalisation of sex work and a guaranteed set of labour rights.
  • COVID-19's impact has provided yet another reason to consider this long-pending demand.

What are the current legal provisions?

  • The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Children Act was enacted in 1956.
  • Subsequent amendments were made to the law.
  • And the name of the Act was changed to Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.
  • This is the legislation currently governing sex work in India.
  • The legislation penalises acts such as
    1. keeping a brothel
    2. soliciting in a public place
    3. living off the earnings of sex work
    4. living with or habitually being in the company of a sex worker

What are the concerns?

  • Legal - The Act represents the archaic and regressive view that sex work is morally wrong.
  • It perceives that the people involved in it, especially women, never consent to it voluntarily.
  • As a consequence, it is believed that these women need to be “rescued” and “rehabilitated.”
  • This is a valid argument for minor girls, but not for many consenting adult sex workers.
  • Social - The Act's precept has led to the classification of ‘‘respectable women” and “non-respectable women.”
  • It thus perpetuates the prejudice of viewing sex workers as morally devious.
  • The Act, besides criminalising, has further stigmatised sex work.
  • It thus leaves sex workers more prone to violence, discrimination and harassment.
  • Rights - The Act denies an individual their right over their bodies.
  • It imposes the will of the state over adults articulating their life choices.
  • It gives no agency to the sex workers to fight against the traffickers.
  • In fact, the Act has made them more susceptible to be harassed by the state officials.
  • Evidence shows that many women choose to remain in sex work despite opportunities to leave after ‘rehabilitation’ by the government or NGOs.
  • The Act fails to recognise this choice.
  • There is a distinction between women who are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and adult, consenting women who are in sex work of their own volition.
  • The Justice Verma Commission had also acknowledged this distinction.

What is the way forward?

  • The Supreme Court, in Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal (2011), opined that sex workers have a right to dignity.
  • Parliament must also take a re-look at the existing legislation and do away with the ‘victim-rescue-rehabilitation’ narrative.
  • The country must thus rethink sex work from a labour perspective and guarantee basic labour rights to sex workers.


Source: The Hindu

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