Indian Sex Workers Fight for Decriminalisation in Supreme Court Panel Law Reform Investigation

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent
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The ongoing campaign being undertaken by Indian sex workers advocating for law reform, including the decriminalisation of sex work, recently received a boost in profile when a consortium of sex work law reform advocates, including Chief of the Indian National Commission for Women, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, placed a proposal for reform of India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (IPTA) before the Supreme Court. Although there has been some controversy over Ms. Kumaramangalam’s support for the legalisation of sex work - as opposed to sex workers’ demand for the decriminalisation of sex work -Ms. Kumaramangalam has received kudos for her support of sex work law reform from an Indian national sex worker network. Prior to her appearance before the Supreme Court, Amit Kumar, coordinator of the All Indian Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) stated, “We support Ms. Kumaramangalam for her unbiased approach and positive attitude towards women in general and sex work in particular. Legislation designed for sex workers would help to decriminalise sex work and distinguish between sex work and trafficking.”

On November 8, 2014, a national consultation on sex worker issues was scheduled by the Indian Supreme Court panel. The Court instigated a panel to investigate possible amendments to the IPTA in response to a 2010 public interest litigation case regarding the rehabilitation of sex workers. The panel was mandated to develop recommendations to reform the ITPA, with the aim of creating a legal environment in which sex workers could “live with dignity, in accordance with provisions included in Article 21 of the Constitution”. The panel was also mandated to explore implementation of the ITPA, and how it impacts on sex workers, their working conditions, livelihood, vulnerabilities to exploitation by state actors and other issues. The ITPA does not explicitly prohibit sex work; however, sex workers can be charged under its provisions which ban brothel keeping, living on earnings of sex work and soliciting in public places.

In preparation for the Supreme Court’s national consultation, a number of meetings involving sex workers from across the subcontinent were held with the aim of discussing sex worker rights and the tangible impacts of the IPTA on their lives. Sex worker advocacy groups, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad, Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanshtha, Saheli Sangh and the National Network of Sex Workers India, facilitated a 2 day meeting in Pune in late October. The Pune meeting involved representation from 50 members of 9 sex worker groups from the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Key recommendations from the Pune workshop included the desire of sex workers for: a decriminalisation model over a legalisation model; the repeal of laws used to arrest consenting adults engaging in sex work; that placing sex workers in “corrective homes” or “rehabilitation centres” against their consent must cease immediately; and that laws which criminalise sex workers, their clients and families must be repealed or amended. 

Meenakshi Kamble, a sex worker advocate from Sangli, said, “Sex workers are entitled to the same protection and dignity as every other citizens. Despite this, existing laws are used to harass and punish consenting adult sex workers. We want these laws repealed so that we can live with dignity and earn our livelihood.” However, she added that sex workers were opposed to regulations that force compulsory health check up, compulsory licensing and designated zones. “These violate our right to free movement and work. We hope the government removes laws that criminalise us.”

Bharathi, a member of the Karnataka Sex Workers Union said, “We have been fighting for our human rights for the last two decades and only decriminalisation can provide safe working conditions for us and our children." Sakina, a sex worker advocate from Uttara Kannada Mahila Okkuta, agreed, stating "Police abuse and harass us for soliciting and doing sex work in public places. Sex workers suffer because of raids conducted under the ITPA."

In the prelude to the November 8 Supreme Court panel consultation, sex workers received support for their advocacy efforts from a wide cross-section of society. Mumbai-based feminist lawyer and activist, Kamayani Bali Mahabal, stated that she recognised that the decriminalisation of sex work will vastly improve the working conditions of many sex workers. She said, “Decriminalisation will help address all forms of exploitation, including abusive, sub-standard or unfair working conditions instituted by both state and non-state actors, whilst legalisation will increase state interference in the lives of sex workers.” She also added that “Sex work must not be equated with sexual exploitation or sex trafficking.”Prominent South Indian writer, Dr. Kamala Hampana, also lent support to the sex worker movement, remarking, "Sex work can never be completely eradicated but can be transformed to make sex workers live a life of dignity. You should continue this struggle. I am with you in your struggle."

However, whilst appreciative for the support, sex workers have received from writers, poets, lawyers, filmmakers, political thinkers, academics and other professionals, the National Network of Sex Workers India (NNSW), has asked why sex workers are not receiving greater exposure in the national debate around sex work law reform. Kolika, the current President of the NNSW, who is based in Tamil Nadu, stated, "The voices of women in sex work are sadly missing in this discussion. We don't want people to make statements and decide for or about us, without us being made a part of this process. These discussions must reflect our lived realities and demands."


Regional Correspondent: Asia and the Pacific