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Sex workers, their rights and legitimacy (International Sex Workers' Rights Day, 3rd March)

By Aman Sharma

When we hear the word ‘sex worker’ what comes to our mind? Is it the shoddy images from the red-light district that we saw in some movies, or the not-to-be-mentioned-places that exist in all the cities around our country? Whatever the scenario, the ‘word’ or the people associated with it, both, are some of the most neglected and marginalized in our society.

Throughout our history, we know many wise individuals who walked this land and imparted their teachings to enlighten the path of others. They talked about the dignity of labor, which means that all types of jobs are respected equally, no occupation is considered superior, and none of the works should be discriminated against on any basis. Regardless of whether one's occupation involves physical work or mental labor; it is held that all jobs deserve equal respect. Now the same country as diverse and divided as ours taught the world so many things but kept too little wisdom for its own. It is not surprising to see that one work is considered undignified to the heights that the people associated with it are treated as social pariahs –outcasts.

It is important to understand the meaning of this word because it is very easily confused with other terms, most prominent of which is ‘Prostitution.’ As per the definition by Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally. The term “sex worker” recognizes that sex work is work just like any other occupation. Prostitution, on the other hand, has connotations of criminality and immorality. Many people who engage in sexual services and occupations prefer the term “sex worker” and find “prostitute” demeaning and stigmatizing, which contributes to their exclusion from health, legal, and social services in society. But still, the information related to sex work and aspects related to it, you will find prostitution as a more common term online, which is not surprising as the neglect and ignorance that exists offline is way more prevalent. The ignorance and misapprehensions about sex work to be prostitution are quite common online. One can only imagine how the situation would be in physical spaces and conversations.

Sex workers engage in sexual services to earn a livelihood. Most sex workers choose to do sex work because it is the best option they have. Many sex workers struggle due to poverty, illiteracy, and destitution and have very few other options for any work. Few others find that sex work offers better pay and more flexible working conditions than other jobs. And some pursue this to explore and express their sexuality.

The legality of a sex worker in India is very ambiguous and the legal statute governing the rights of sex workers, The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (PITA) does too little to help them. While this Act allows sex workers to conduct their trade in private places, they cannot legally seek clients/customers in public spaces or engage in organized services. Although sex work per se is permissible, the other activities surrounding it, like the operation of brothels, pimping, pandering, and street solicitation, are illegal in India. Despite the existence of red-light districts in many cities, the question of sex workers’ rights remains unanswered. They are not safeguarded by any labor laws, and they do not have any trade unions but can seek rescue and rehabilitation in state-sanctioned shelters. Additionally, under PITA, as sex work is predominantly conceptualized through the lens of trafficking/exploitation, it impedes an understanding of sex work as a legitimate form of labor.

Society is divided on whether there should be the decriminalization of sex work. Both sides bring their arguments favoring their biases. The criminalization of sex work compromises sex workers’ rights in terms of their health and safety by pushing their work to the underground. Criminalization includes everything from criminalizing the trade of sexual services to blanket restrictions on the management of sex work. Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to negotiate terms with clients, work together with other sex workers for safety, and use contraceptives without fear that they will be used as evidence against them. In many settings, sex workers report extreme levels of violence and harassment in relation to their work, including clients, managers, and even law enforcement officials such as the police. Criminalization exposes sex workers to abuse and exploitation by police officers. As per Human Rights Watch, it has been documented that, in criminalized environments, police officers harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse them, or even rape or coerce sex from them.

Sex workers are often stigmatized, marginalized, and criminalized by the societies in which they live. In many ways, these factors contribute to their vulnerability to various risks. In addition, the stigma that sex workers face can make it hard for them to access anything without facing discrimination from society. Although this is at least partially legal in some countries, the law rarely protects them. Around the world, there is a serious lack of legislation and policies to protect sex workers who may find themselves at risk of violence from both state and non-state actors such as law enforcement, partners, family members, and their clients.

The decriminalization of sex work means a lot for the sex workers as it removes criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to their work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers’ rights. For decriminalization to be meaningful, it must be accompanied by a recognition of sex work as a legitimate occupation, allowing it to be governed by labor laws and protections similar to what other jobs have. While decriminalization does not resolve all challenges that sex workers face, it is an essential step to realize sex workers’ human rights as they are as humans just as anybody else.


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