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Sex Workers

 Sex Work-  Employment or Exploitation

Article 14 of the constitution guarantees that all people shall be equally protected by the laws of the country. but the situation of these sex workers forces me to believe that they are not treated equally, nor are they accepted by society. This article aims to provide information about what goes around in the shady corners of the most crowded states and why these women have to resort to secrecy just to earn a livelihood.

Sex work in our country has always been taboo despite the fact that there are millions of women involved in consensual sex work. History also indicates that prostitution was accepted in ancient India. Aryan rulers followed the system of celestial court and developed the system of guest prostitution. Despite it being legal, sex work is not considered a respectable profession as sex is not considered a job but only a means of pleasure. Precisely why sex workers around our country are denied basic rights. In this article, I aim to highlight the plight of sex workers in the pandemic and how the government can aid them.

On September 29, the Supreme Court directed all states to provide dry rations to sex workers identified by the National AIDS Control Organization and legal service authorities without insisting on any proof of identity. However, while the dry ration was indeed distributed without the insistence of identification proof, per the Supreme Court's orders, governments in some cities like Mumbai have reportedly been insisting on the Aadhaar number and bank account details for the cash transfer every month.

Officials have said that this is necessary to ensure that there is no duplication. This puts those sex workers who are not associated with any NGOs - which provide them with referral letters- in a position where they cannot avail the cash benefit. This is an example of how just because they don't have government-approved identities, they are not able to avail PDS facilities and government schemes.

In contrast, many NGOs do not require government-approved documents and they are the main reason why many use workers have been able to feed themselves and their families. These NGOs provide ration to sex workers as many have children and families to feed. This means if they go hungry, their children go hungry too.

Another dilemma is that sex workers move frequently to escape identification by family or for better-earning opportunities. They also hide their identity due to the stigma attached to their work and to protect themselves. This makes it very difficult to provide relief work through government channels that ask for ration cards and other identity and address proof. This is one of the main reasons why many sex workers are unable to access schemes while some don't even know if they are eligible for them.

Since brothels are illegal, they are bound to have raids. When a raid and rescue is conducted by the police, many such women who have made a consensual business agreement with a client or have made contacts in the industry are also detained or sent to shelter homes, without being asked if they wish to leave the trade. This clearly shows the assumption of the authorities that anyone who is involved in sex work is forced to do so.

But that is not the case; many of these women are the sole breadwinner in their families. In India, the main tool to perform brothel raids and rescue operations is the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, or the ITPA. The ITPA is the main law that talks about prostitution and trafficking and puts forth the legal status of sex work in our country. In 2018 the ITPA was amended to include and clarify the definitions of certain terms and to add a few clauses. This act, according to sex workers makes their job harder.
Shortcomings In The ITPA

Upon analysis, one realises that the act does have some flaws which need to be addressed:

  • While prostitution is not an offence, practising it in a brothel or within 200 m of any public place is illegal. This criminalises a certain part of their work, thereby forcing them to practice mostly in secret with fear of the authorities. Since brothels (mostly handled by madams) are one of the main places where sex work is practised, this makes the job harder for them.

  • This act also penalises clients who visit these areas. It is assumed that clients who visit these red-light areas have criminal ties. While some do and it is important to prosecute them under the IPC, we need to understand that that is not the case for each client. Penalising clients who visit prostitutes could drive this sector underground; this could make it difficult to access legal channels for the protection of trafficked workers.

  • The bill fails to mention trafficking for bonded labour, domestic work, girls who are trafficked for forced marriage. The act of "purchasing brides" is very prevalent in North India. It is integral to address it in this act.

  • In the recent amendment (2019), The rank of a special police officer, who would enforce the Act, is lowered from Inspector to Sub-Inspector. Such powers delegated to junior officers could lead to greater harassment and hindrance in the correct action. There should also be at least 2 or 3 female officers in the team too for the comfort of these young girls.

  • One of the main problems with the language of the act is that it assumes that each woman involved in sex work is a victim of exploitation who needs to be rescued and does not recognise sex work as a legitimate job. Many sex workers across Bengal have held rallies to emphasise the fact that "sex is work." This act needs to take that into impression.

  • The act does not mention where it would rehabilitate the sex workers that it supposedly rescues, has no measures for victim compensation and neither does it give comprehensive information about connecting the rescued sex workers to health services and NGOs.

The ITPA read from a legal perspective does not give surety to the safety of these sex workers, nor does it fully give them the protection that they deserve.

Shortcomings In Governmental Schemes

Under the Prime Minister's Garib Kalyan Yojana, a financial package to reduce the impact of COVID-19 was introduced and an amount of Rs 500 per month was supposed to be transferred to women's accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana for three months, the government had said on March 26, 2020. The documents required for the same are Aadhaar Card, if not available, one of the following Officially Valid Documents (OVD) is required: Voter ID Card, Driving License, PAN Card.

Now many sex workers who are trafficked into the industry do not have government-approved documents like Aadhar or any license. Sex workers in Sonagchi, West Bengal are still fighting for their voting rights. This proves that most of the sex workers don't have Jan Dhan accounts because either they don't know if they qualify for it or even if they do, the money is too little to sustain a family, especially in the times of COVID 19. Rs 500 per month is a petty amount, considering many of these sex workers have families to send money to and children to take care of.

Methods Of Protection And Solutions

Here are some suggested solutions that could aid the sex workers for the time being and in the long run too.

  • Recognition of sex workers as informal workers and their registration is important so they can get worker benefits as discussed above. They should be provided with at least temporary documents like identity cards that enable them to access welfare measures such as PDS and insurance benefits.

  • An immediate firewall between health and food services and immigration authorities to ensure that migrant sex workers can access health services. These are the amongst the workers who have miserably suffered during the lockdown, like all the other migrant labourers, yet we fail to give them importance.

  • A bone ossification test or wisdom teeth technique should be done to determine the age of those involved in sex work in order to identify minors. Ossification leads to the formation of bone cells, which is why it's also known as osteogenesis. Since the formation of bones is associated with skeletal and biological maturity, it helps to determine age. Under the wisdom teeth technique, doctors examine the third molar which usually erupts between 17 to 25 years of age.

This is because many women are given drugs and injections to speed up sexual maturation so age determination becomes an important factor. These age determination tests are usually used by the courts to identify juveniles. Similarly, once accepted by the court they should demand a periodic report with the test results of the girls and underage sex workers should be handed over to Child Welfare Committees so that sex work continues to be consensual and legal.
The government needs to focus on the situation and plight of sex workers who do not just struggle under the burden of the social stigma and the recent COVID guidelines. But as their incomes dwindle, they are not able to access antiretroviral drugs to prevent HIV, condoms, which are a necessity in their line of work. The government should take inspiration from previous precedents set by many countries.

Demonstrative Evidence

For example, in 2006, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene made free condoms available to organizations through a Web-based ordering system. Organizations reported 80% (280/351) of patrons who saw free condoms, took free condoms, and 73% (205/280) of those who reported taking them also reported using them. Similarly, our government should make condoms free for sex workers in these times.

Condom Availability Programmes were also met with a decrease in rates of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) considering, the barrier or the mechanical method is the only method of birth control that can prevent STDs. Expanding such programs to include PPE and pamphlets related to sexual safety in the time of COVID-19 would contribute to spreading awareness about health for not only sex workers but also the general public who are usually unaware of the consequences of unsafe sex.

Case Study
Let us look at a case study of one of the largest red-light areas in India, Mumbai.


Kamathipura is divided into roughly 14 lanes and divided according to the regional backgrounds of the workers. Most of the workers come from other Indian states. In most red-light areas in urban centres, multiple women live together in squalor, in tiny 33.7-metre (1012-foot) rooms. If one provides an approximate, then 50 people will be using one public washroom. In such cases, social distancing is not possible.

Relocation of these sex workers is a topic that is not brought up by anyone except some organisations such as the All-India Network of Sex Workers {AINSW}. These are the organisations that are constantly fighting to secure voting rights to sex workers, to provide them rations, and relaxation of rent to brothel owners. On average, sex workers can make around 100-800 rupees per client.

There is little chance that they can pay their rent in such conditions especially amidst a pandemic as many pay rents to brothel owners and others give a cut per customer periodically. Now with less liquid money coming in due to the need for social distancing and less physical contact, they are facing a deep crisis.

With an especially high prevalence of HIV-positive and tuberculosis cases, access to healthcare and drugs like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) has been tough. These pills are for people who are at risk of getting HIV. With no work, these sex workers now find themselves at the edge of a cliff striving for survival, depending upon NGOs for even the most basic of amenities.

This case study not only takes us through the miserable living situations of these sex workers but also gives us a dark glimpse of their financial conditions and how even getting everyday ration is also a burden for them.

Sex work is an uncertain job. You earn money on a day-to-day basis. These sex workers constantly fight for good money from their clients after providing them with their services. We need to understand that in times where multi-million-dollar businesses and industries are suffering losses, these workers are finding it hard to make ends meet.

On one hand, young women are trafficked and sold to brothels and on the other hand, women are protesting for the identification of sex as a real job. The ITPA needs to talk about the struggles of both. Till now they have been neglected, but we need to address this issue.


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