On 2 June 1975, approximately 100 sex workers occupied Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon, France, to express their anger about their criminalized and exploitative living conditions. On 10 June at 5 o’clock, the Church was brutally raided by police forces. This action sparked a national movement, and the day is now celebrated in Europe and around the world as International Sex Workers’ Day. Today on 2nd June 2020, we celebrate almost 45 years of freedom movement of sex work. The movement has become stronger, however, it is interesting to understand whether the situation of people who engage in sex work has changed or not. Any word associated with ‘sex’ is considered a taboo across the world in conservative societies. As a result, people who engage in sex work as a profession face acute discrimination, harassment and violence. If we consider the history of India on sex work, the governments of many Indian princely states had regulated prostitution in India before the 1860s. The British Raj enacted the Cantonment Act of 1864 to regulate Prostitution in colonial India as a matter of accepting it as a necessary evil. There are over 900,000 sex workers in India (Reference – National AIDS Control Organisation, Annual Report, 2016).
Sex work happens in informal settings and is an occasional form of income or a long term occupation. Despite this, a safe working environment through standard labour protection measures continues to be denied to sex workers.
Kusum Nagar, head of All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW)) has lived through experiences of sex work and has associated with millions of sex workers across India to advocate for their rights and inclusion. She states – “Sex work is work! We want people to change their perspective about people who are engaged in sex work as a profession. In countries like India; women, men, transgender engage in sex work as a profession for various needs. They face huge violence and discrimination which further results in lack of health access, lack of opportunities for their children for education & employment and deprive them of equal rights in society. Mainstreaming sex work and their rights desire ‘community-friendly’ policies and giving the status of profession to sex work and people associated with sex work. Sex workers need equal rights and they need to be treated equally in eyes of law as well. The criminalisation of sex work and people associated with sex work create more vulnerability towards HIV, puts communities underground, and create a hostile environment within health care systems.’’ She further articulates those who are into sex work are also subject to all sorts of violence (financial, verbal, physical, and emotional) from gatekeepers, families and stakeholders. Punitive policy laws such as ITPA (Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act) criminalizes sex workers’ clients and hence puts sex workers in social & financial deprivation. “We demand mainstreaming & dignity of access to health, social welfare and dignity in society just like any other human being. We demand a better future for our children in a stigma-free environment and also healthy bodies to serve our clients better. Our dream in AINSW is to give dignity to ‘sex work’ as a profession and protect people engaged in sex work.”,she further adds.
Alliance India is implementing Ujwala project in collaboration with MAC AIDS Foundation in three states (Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat) reaching young women in sex work who are difficult to reach for HIV and SRH services. We serve young women who are engaged in sex work through virtual platforms, spa, parlors, and also work on inter-state contractual agreements with their clients. Ujwala reaching to more than 4,000 women in sex work, further provides evidence that HIV vulnerabilities among young women in sex work is higher.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has further impacted sex work and people engage in sex work immensely. India is in 4th month of lockdown and it has impacted their financial conditions, they have been evacuated from their rented homes without shelter & food, subject to gender-based violence and struggle with basic SRH services such as sanitary napkins. Alliance India has managed to provide dry ration & sanitary pads to more than 400 women in sex work in Delhi and still counting more.
Though we are adjusting to new lingo regarding COVID-19 – ‘Live With Corona’; life is not the same for people engaged in sex work under COVID-19. Economies have crashed and the majority of the burden of employment & earnings have impacted the working class and below poverty line communities. People in sex work under COVID-19 have faced huge losses in sex work for almost the past six months and still facing the same. Sex workplaces are haunted now without customers, virtual sex work is facing exploitations & blackmailing from clients, parlors are yet to open and dance bars are closed. Several sex workers are stuck in other states due to COVID-19 migration border lockdown situations without their families. The majority of sex workers have taken a huge loan from private money lenders to survive in these difficult times for survival. Due to the social stigma, sex workers are not included as a ‘profession’ in un-organized sector government welfare schemes and subsidies. Gender-based violence from lovers, partners, and spouses has increased.
Alliance India as a civil society organization has communities from sex work working closely on HIV interventions and creating policy change. Abhina Aher, former sex worker and also Associate Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Rights states – “We at Alliance India embrace communities in heart of our programmes. We strongly believe ‘HIV programming towards people in sex work can not be possible unless we prioritize community needs and create ‘holistic health response’ towards people in sex work which provides social inclusion, dignity, and rights to choose their own profession! Sex workers and people engaged in sex work are humans, and all humans in this free world deserve equal rights!”
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