Sex Workers’ Rights Must Be Upheld: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

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In India, an estimated four million female sex workers support around 12 million dependent family members on their earnings from sex work. And every one of these women is a criminal in this country. Sex work in legal in India but it is a crime to practice it because of the law governing sex work. On International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, the consequences of such a law are worth addressing. But first, it is essential to understand the “work” in sex work.

Sex work is a practical livelihood option for many women in India as sex work generates better income than jobs in unorganized labor sector. It is a choice they make to earn a living. This view completely thrashes the general perception that all women in sex trade are forced into it. This view gives precedence to the right of women to choose their profession.

But when the State intervenes and this profession is viewed through the blinkers of morality, it denies women the right to choose their profession on moral grounds. Police, criminals, pimps, and clients threaten, control and abuse sex workers. Rape and assault are difficult to report when a sex worker fears she will be arrested leaving an already vulnerable population completely defenceless. Sexual violence also heightens vulnerability to HIV. Studies show that decriminalization of sex work alone could bring down the transmission of HIV among the sex workers by 43% – 47%.

With support from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and NACO, sex workers have formed collectives that are empowering other sex workers as part of HIV programme implementation strategy.

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is an example of a collective that is centered on the agency of the women in sex trade and their ability to choose for themselves. This committee is run in one of the largest red light districts in the country called Sonagachi in Kolkata, West Bengal with the objective to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS epidemic, health, education, literacy, and empowerment of sex workers and their families.

The lives of sex workers is characterized by pervasive economic insecurity and a lack of control over their earnings which makes it impossible for them to escape the debt trap. This has both direct and indirect effect on their ability to insist on safer sex with their customers. Unless sex workers’ are financially secure there is very little hope to ensure safer sex practices. Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society is another example of an effort to help sex workers achieve financial security and the hope for a dignified life. This cooperative gave sex workers their political identity, dignity and respect.

But these are rare examples. We have a long way to go before the society accepts sex work as another profession and accepts sex workers as equal citizens. Today, on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, it is essential that we address the structural factors that perpetrate, condone, and justify continuous violence against sex workers world-wide. The critical first step towards ending violence against sex workers would be to end laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against “immoral” earnings, “living off the earnings” of prostitution and brothel-keeping. Moreover, sex workers must have access to justice to ensure safe working conditions and security against violence.

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The author of this post is Dr Samarjit Jana, Principal at Sonagachi Research and Training Institute in Kolkata, West Bengal.  He served as Technical Adviser to UNAIDS prior to this. 

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