Dignity and Respect: Realizing the Rights of Sex Workers

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As the world marks International Sex Workers’ Rights Day on March 3rd, I wonder how India with its norms of patriarchy and caste-based hierarchy will realize the rights of women in sex work. Our country struggles to afford women basic respect and dignity; female sex workers face even greater barriers. They are considered the antithesis of existing patriarchal norms in our society and pushed to the margins. Many Indian states denied their existence for so long, and their legal status is cloaked in ambiguity. India’s National AIDS Control Program is the only government program that even begins to respond to their needs. While some progress has been made in ensuring their access to HIV services, many of their health needs remain unmet, and they lack protection of their basic social and legal rights.

Alliance India’s Abhaya project engages with women in sex work to improve their sexual and reproductive health. The project works to advocate for their rights, autonomy, and freedom of choice. While working with Abhaya, I have heard many stories of struggle, survival and sometimes success that have moved and inspired me. The lives of sex workers need to be heard and understood to ensure that their rights are realized. Two such stories are below:

Reshma’s story: Reshma, a 22-year-old from West Bengal, is the mother of two children. Her husband had abandoned her, and in need of financial security, she started working as a sex worker. She earns enough to take care of her children’s welfare. Reshma is extremely careful to use condoms and cautious for her own safety during sex work. In fact, she was one of the few women we met who also recognized the importance of condoms with her regular partner. The social ostracism that she feels is one of the biggest issues she faces. In spite of this, she does not let it weigh her down, and she is proud to be able to support her family.

Rehana’s story: Rehana is a young sex worker in Delhi. She is extremely poor and is already the mother of four children. She knows that society has only contempt for women in sex work, but the needs of her family have left her with few options. She is one of many sex workers who live extremely complex lives trapped between extreme poverty and societal norms that diminish her.

Women like Rehana and Reshma epitomize the bravery of women. Like all women, they should be treated with dignity and respect, not stigma and oppression. To realize the rights of sex workers, it is crucial that they are treated fairly without stigma or discrimination. Their voices must be heard. Their right to a life of dignity must be allowed to bloom.

The author of this post, Nandini Mazumdar is the Programme Officer of the Abhaya project at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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