Violence against sex workers, a violation of their rights

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Mainstream dialogues on GBV in India also ignores a significant and vulnerable population of women – female sex workers (FSW). Sex workers are either viewed as women “in need of rescue and rehabilitation” or as “criminals” as the laws around sex work in India is ambiguous, deeming it, neither illegal nor legal.

The contradictory language of the law is translated into inconsistent judgements, which serve as guide for the legal parlance of the nation. For example, in 2014 a trial court in Delhi sentenced four youth for gang-raping a sex worker While, the Supreme Court in 2016 stated that because a sex worker may accuse her customers of rape in case they refuse to pay her, the evidence submitted by such women should be given significance but cannot be regarded as the “gospel truth”, indicating the absence of sensitivity towards sex workers and the violence faced by them in our judiciary.

A 2010 study with FSWs in Karnataka confirms the correlation between violence and increased risks of HIV in the lives of women in sex work. According to a World Health Organization report, violence against FSWs is commonplace and accepted by many. Law enforcement and laws on sex work often fail to protect FSWs and so increase the risk of violence against them. Violence is also perpetrated by pimps, clients, family members and regular partners and compromises SRH, increasing chances of unwanted pregnancies, STI and HIV. A research study by the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 70% of sex workers in India were beaten by the police and more than 80% were arrested without evidence.

During a session on GBV in a newly initiated project by Alliance India, one of the participants, shared her own experience of the regular harassment and humiliation meted out by her son-in-law for being a sex worker; he used it as an excuse to torture his wife (or her daughter). In another case of sexual assault, a sex worker was kidnapped and gang raped by five men. They threatened dire consequence to her daughter if she did not stay silent and pay a ransom of Rs. 20,000/. Next morning, she was left unconscious when a passer-by found her and took her to the nearest government hospital. When she approached the police, they refused to register a case. She reached out to our outreach worker who took her to the police station and spoke to higher authorities and finally, a case was registered. The accused were arrested and sent to judicial custody and her daughter too was found and reunited with her.

Such incidents reinstates the necessity to document, map and address GBV because they are related to health and well-being of these marginalized and vulnerable women. Finally, in order for all women to be freed of GBV, there should not be discrimination in the access to justice. Every woman irrespective of her identity must be treated with respect and her right to live free of violence should be upheld and protected.

The author of this blog is Alliance India’s Nandini Mazumder, Programme Officer: Sexual & Reproductive Health.

Alliance India