Sex worker : A person who negotiates and performs sexual services for remuneration. Some use this term to mean only prostitution, while others use the term to refer to those in the sex industry such as porn actors, bar girls, striptease dancers, performers in peep shows, live sex shows, etc. This is not the social or psychological characteristic of a class of women, but an income-generating activity or form of employment for women, men and trans* people.
– adapted from TARSHI’s manual for trainers, Basics and Beyond:
The sex workers’ rights movement began in the 1970s in France with hundreds of sex workers, who were reported to have occupied five influential churches of the time, demanding an end to police harassment, reopening of hotels where they worked, and the scrapping of anti-pimping laws. With time, the movement has taken over the world, with Indian women too emerging from the veils of stigma to voice their rights.
Sex workers have been ostracized for a long time. Treated as a section of degenerates and physically and mentally harassed over the years. In our Indian society, where everyone is judged through a visage of false morality and cultural values, the sex workers have been at the receiving end of stigma, criminalization, violence and even citizenship denials repeatedly.
The biggest threat to their existence is the immoral traffic prevention act (ITPA),1956. This law doesn’t directly target sex workers , but the law results in their criminalization with prohibition of soliciting, brothel and street working and is repeatedly used to deny them any protection under law. Though the law, in theory was developed to prevent trafficking and child prostitution, the wide coverage of the unspecific terms have been used over the years to exploit adult women who engage in the trade as a means of income.
The provision of the law to target brothels empowers the authorities to crack down on their only place of residence. Most of the sex workers live under the roof of brothels, along with their family, which includes children and elderly. The law has been repeatedly used to evict them from their residence under the false pretext of ‘closing down brothels’ and many a times even their children are criminalized.
The law also gives authorities the power to enter and raid brothels as per their fancy. This provision is repeatedly misused to harass and exploit these women. Even though there is no law preventing sex working, the authorities have made it a practice to arrest and criminalize them even when there is no rule preventing them from working. Even if they are arrested or evicted, the law demands them to be properly rehabilitated with adequate medical provisions. But in reality the rehabilitation centers amount to violent spaces with sparse sanitation, surrounded by harassment and often they are forcefully separated from their children.
Sex workers have been repeatedly targeted by the police and vigilante groups on a regular basis. They are prevented from access to proper healthcare facilities, forced to live in inhumane conditions, fighting poverty and discrimination, they are even bypassed by the government policy including acquiring citizenship. Even local schools target their children, repeatedly denying admission to schools and they are even thrown out of hospitals on question of their morality.
Sex workers are demanding not just repealing of the law that wrongfully criminalizes them and targets their livelihood; instead they are fighting to be recognized as a human being. Their demands amounting to meager residential and rehabilitation facilities, provisions for securing education for their children, access to proper health care facilities and an end to stigma and violence that is being unleashed upon them. Demands are also being raised to provide pension facilities for them, as old age ends their only means of income and to survive they are forced to make their children work. But no mother wants her daughter to be a sex worker. The viscous cycle needs to be ended, and for that the children are to be provided with basic education.
Our society has a rich tradition of violating, exploiting and harassing sex workers. She is a woman, no matter what she does for a living. The society need to learn to accept them as women working for a living. The lens of morality needs to be turned away. Most of them are single mothers, forced to sell their bodies to take care of their loved ones and to protect their children. Instead of isolating and criminalizing them, the society as a whole needs to work together to provide fundamental rights of life and help the future generations to escape a cycle of poverty that has kept them tied to the work.