Vivian Ward, the sex worker on Hollywood Boulevard played by the vivacious Julia Roberts, is hard to forget, especially for her candour and wit. In one of the scenes, Vivian tells Edward, played by Richard Gere, that “people put you down enough you start to believe it”. The line resonates even today as society, law and individuals in India continue to look down upon sex workers and refuse to acknowledge their rights.
As the fight for basic human rights of sex workers continues, a first step towards their victory came on May 25 when the Supreme Court decriminalised voluntary sex work by adults and upheld their right to live with dignity as per Article 21 of the Constitution.
The euphoria among sex workers and their hope to achieve full rights as citizens were evident in different parts of the country. Describing such a moment, Mahasweta Mukherjee, advocacy officer of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO looking after the welfare of sex workers in Kolkata’s Sonagachhi, said, “It is a pathbreaking order and all the women here celebrated on that day by distributing sweets.”
However, Mukherjee aptly pointed out that the fight is not over and this order is only the beginning.
Mukherjee, who has been working with the sex workers for 26 years now, was right. The hurdles for the women who have either chosen this profession or are forced to be part of this other world are aplenty. From society’s disdainful attitude to the law enforcers’ atrocity, the women have a long way to go to earn the dignity that they deserve.
The first hurdle is the apex court’s second part of the order that criminalises brothels, which are home to hundreds of sex workers and their children. The closure of brothels in cities will render hundreds of sex workers homeless and it will be difficult for them to be in the profession. This would mean high rate of unemployment.
Mukherjee said Durbar is fighting for this basic amenity. The NGO is coordinating with law enforcers and making them understand why it is important to let the brothels run.
“Also, it is easier for NGOs working with sex workers to reach out to the women and provide healthcare facilities and education to their children. If brothels are shut down, then they will get disintegrated and it will be a daunting task to trace all. Moreover, many of them will be exploited by clients in hotels or in other private places. If one gets infected with HIV, there will be no way to find that out and the disease will spread,” she explained the problems of criminalising brothels and penalising the owners of these buildings.
The social worker said Durbar has been successful in convincing the administration to not evict sex workers from the existing brothels.
Bisakha Laskar, the president of Durbar and a sex worker at Sonagachhi who has been fighting for the rights of the women there for the past 27 years, seconded Mukherjee.
“No doubt the order is welcome change. However, if there is no brothel, then what is the point in getting acceptance? If we do not have a place to stay then how do we survive? The ambiguity remains. So, brothels should also get acceptance along with sex work as a profession and that is one of our demands,” said Laskar.
The apex court’s Panel for Sex Workers had given 10 recommendations, of which the Centre had accepted six. The four recommendations which the Centre has objected are:
- Equal protection of the law for sex workers, which means when a sex worker lodges a complaint of sexual, criminal or any other offence, the police must act on it as per law.
- Whenever there is a raid on any brothel, the sex workers concerned should not be victimised or penalised.
- The Centre and states must involve sex workers and /or their representatives in all decision-making processes.
- No child of a sex worker should be separated from the mother merely on the ground that she is in the sex trade.
The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to respond on these recommendations on the next date of hearing on July 27.
“We are looking forward to the July 27 hearing and we are hopeful that the government would respond positively. For any decision-making, sex workers’ representatives should be part of it,” said Laskar.
Social acceptance & constitutional rights
While the court order is definitely a step towards a bigger legal victory, social acceptance still remains elusive. According to Mukherjee, the discrimination against sex workers will take a long time to end.
Sex workers are still treated like squalor of the society and even if they get the constitutional rights, there is little chance that even law enforcers will help them in times of crises. In a male-dominated society where women are looked at as commodities, one can barely expect dignity for sex workers.
However, NGOs like Durbar are working hard to spread awareness and helping sex workers access government schemes and identification documents. Laskar informed that most of the sex workers in Sonagachhi have already received voter ID and Aadhaar cards and they have access to several state government schemes, including those for girl children.
In Meghalaya, Shamakami, an NGO that works with the LGBTQ community, is doing its part to protect the rights of the third gender and those from the community who are in the sex work profession.
Phidalia Toi, the newly appointed chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, told Sunday Monitor that the recent order will make it easier for the commission to ensure sex workers’ safety and dignity. At the same time, she said sex workers should be responsible citizens and they should help in checking trafficking, especially of minors.
“Both the central and state governments should find ways and means to help sex workers so that they are not criminalised,” she added.
There is also a need to protect the rights of sex workers from the LGBTQ community who often face harassment and are penalised by authorities.
As sex workers and social activists across the country wait for July 27, there is a need for our society to introspect and change its mindset. In this, women should play an important role in changing the centuries-old taboo against prostitution as it is the men who have been exploiting them. Also, it is important that sex workers in every state are organised and all marginalised sections, including LGBTQ, of the society work together to make both legal and social acceptance a reality, pointed out Mukherjee.
~ Team Sunday Monitor