New Delhi, 20th October 2020: Tafteesh, a coalition of human rights activists, survivor leaders, lawyers and researchers, welcomes the advisory of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) titled “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of Covid19” that recommended that sex workers be recognised as informal workers so that they can access to all benefits and services as equal citizens of this country.
While the directive is an encouraging development towards recognizing and affirming the welfare and human rights of sex workers, one of the most marginalized communities not only in India but all over the world, it is deeply disturbing to see the letter to NHRC by Ms. Sunitha Krishnan of Prajwala asking the Commission to desist from categorizing sex work under the category of informal labor or ‘work’ and recognize it as slavery and violence against women. We consider this moralistic objective as an attack on the rights of vulnerable communities like the sex workers.
We, as Tafteesh, support the NHRC’s call for decriminalization of sex workers and recognizing them as informal labor. However, we call for criminalization of madams, brothel managers, brothel owners and pimps, who exploit sex workers for debt bondage. We firmly believe that traffickers, brothel managers, brothel owners and pimps should not be conflated with sex workers. We also believe that recognition of sex workers as informal labor on the one hand and criminalization of brothel owners, madams, pimps, and sex traffickers on the other will empower sex workers against her exploiters.
While it is important to make all financial and welfare inclusion benefits available to sex workers, it is also critical to define who is a sex worker, and the State must bifurcate between the exploited or vulnerable and the exploiter – those who run brothels and profit from sex workers, those who own brothels and red light districts and profit from sex trade.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has recently called for activation of Anti Human Trafficking Units in all states across the country to combat a COVID induced human trafficking, and this is what the approach ought to be – for AHTUs to step up their investigation of the commercial associates of prostitution and discourage their flourish. This may enable the Government of India to achieve a balanced approach of protecting sex workers from exploitation and violence as well as ensure prevention of sex trafficking of children and adults.
As grassroots activists, survivors of sex trafficking and sex workers, we desist from making ideological proclamations. Whether prostitution is in-dignifying to some or respectable to another is a matter of person perception or choice. However, the State, while drafting public policy cannot get driven by narrow ideological groups who push agenda based on their own beliefs and rigid stances. It is time we stepped above the vilest form of politics that plays with the lives of most vulnerable children and women in India and do what is needed with a long-term vision and a robust road map.
The State of India is constitutionally obligated to remove all forms of inequality that lies at the heart of exploitation of people on the basis of their work, class, gender and caste bias that pushes people into stigmatized labor. Let us work towards realization of that goal.
Tafteesh is a coalition of human rights organizations, researchers, lawyers, psychologists, and journalists from across India, who work towards empowering survivors of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced labor.
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