Tag Archive for Sex workers India

Kamala Maushi: Salute to a proud Devadasi

Kamala-Maushi

In memory of a proud Devadasi, a relentless activist who fought for sex workers rights, a natural leader and a compassionate comrade – Kamala Maushi (11-2-1950 to 11-2-2015)

By Meena Seshu

“Unlike gharguti [household] women I am married to a Goddess! In my culture, I have become a man. I am a Kaka (paternal uncle) to my nieces and nephews! All property in the house will be distributed equally among my brothers and me. Upper caste people in the village have to treat me with respect,” said Kamalabai Pani, explaining the Devadasi custom.

I met Kamalabai in April 2000 when she came to the office of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) office in Sangli with Bhimawa Gollar. They were best friends: both ‘big’ Gharwalis (Brothel owners) in Sangli. They came because Sidharam a local thug had targeted Kamalabai, pulled her out of a running auto rickshaw and physically assaulted her. They approached us to intervene because the police refused to file a case against Sidharam. We went and filed the case together and from then on all our lives changed.

Kamala Maushi was proud to be a Devadasi. She always believed that she was in a much better position compared to married women, because she felt more in ‘control’ of her life. She loved her jewellery and wore it for almost any occasion. “I am not a poor woman,” she often said.

Her understanding about the Devadasi system defied argument. She was perplexed by the opposition to the Devadasi system. Her argument was that she was superior because she was married to a goddess and thus would never be a widow; she was considered a ‘male’ in the family; she was the head of her household; she had control over her earnings and her property; her children were her own and did not belong to the man who fathered them; she was allowed to have multiple sexual partners among other freedoms.

She disagreed with the analysis that the Devdasi system was established in order to ensure that upper caste and upper class men always had access to women from the Dalit castes with societal sanction. She argued that in her own personal life she had ‘kept’ and had access to many men from all castes and classes of society. She paid to keep them and left them when she wanted to do so. Her present malak (live in lover) was an upper caste landed farmer who she ‘maintained’ till her death.

Kamalabai was a natural leader who had the respect of various levels of people she interacted with, District Magistrate, Police, Dean of the Civil hospital, Municipal Councillors, MLAs, lawyers, NGO leaders, Trade Union leaders, community leaders, feminist leaders both national and international. When the Collector of Sangli had a meeting on income generation projects for sex workers she told him, “Sir, the government should have income generation for persons who are unable to earn on their own. Sex Workers already have an income.” The DM immediately instructed his officers to stop the compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers, in Sangli.

Her arguments with police officers and health officials in Sangli were legendary: “Are we not human?” is a question she asked every official who violated the rights of sex workers

Her understanding of the right to be treated as a human being irrespective of the legality of her work (brothel keeping is illegal) never failed to impress me. She argued that criminalisation of her work did not give law enforcement the right to violate her dignity.

At the community level she coined the term “Anyay sehan karnar nahi”. Will not tolerate injustice! She mobilised to root out money lenders who charged exorbitant interest, in Gokulnagar first and then on the idea spread to all the areas in which the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the sex workers’ collective, was active. A staunch supporter of collectivisation, as an effective method in the struggle for rights, she nurtured many a young leader in VAMP. She talked about rights of young women in sex work to both brothel owners and third parties involved in the management of sex work.

She played a huge part in stopping minor girls from entering the business. Talking to brothel owners, explaining issues of consent, deception, debt bondage and economic exploitation within the trade she convinced her opponents that trafficking was an injustice against the community and fought to oust dalals (agents) and money lenders.

The most endearing trait of this indomitable woman was her ability to forgive her enemies. She repeatedly told us all to control our anger. “Anger kills the collective spirit,” she always said. VAMP and SANGRAM will miss her wisdom, kindness and warmth. We only hope we have the strength to continue this struggle that means so much to all of us.

Kamala Maushi, Zindabad!

UN asks India to protect sex workers rights, repeal 377, curb growing violence against women

UN- 2014- India-women- report

UN Special Rapporteur highlights pervasive gender stereotyping in media and community and entrenched patriarchal attitudes in public officials, judicial officers and the police force, as an impediment to curbing violence against women

By Team FI

In an important step towards recognizing sex worker rights in India, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women called on the Indian Government to review the trafficking legislation which criminalizes women in sex work.

The Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, also urged the government to repeal section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes gay sex and amend the new rape law of 2013 – in particular to review the provisions that provide for the death penalty and to include the definition of marital rape as a criminal offence.

The Report on Violence Against Women, its causes and consequences, Mission to India was submitted to the UN General Assembly in April 2014 and was based on the India mission undertaken by the Special Rapporteur in April 2013. The Special Rapporteur received written submissions and listened to depositions from women’s organizations, networks, affected individuals, and government officials across the length and breadth of India during her visit.

According to the report, the overall conviction rate in India for crimes listed in the Penal Code was 38.5 per cent in 2012, the lowest in 10 years, which was largely due to delays in the finalization of cases. Quoting the National Crimes Records Bureau, the Rapporteur expressed concern over the fact that while conviction rate for crimes against women (21.3%) remained low while a 24.7 % increase was recorded in the reports of crimes against women after 2008. The proportion of registered cases of crimes committed against women vis-à-vis crimes in total increased from 8.9 per cent in 2008 to 10.2 per cent in 2012. As per the report, “the low conviction rate and the higher number of cases registered will not act as a deterrent for future crimes against women, nor will it engender trust in the judicial system.”

The Special Rapporteur also raised concern about the deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes of police officers, prosecutors, judicial officers and other relevant civil servants, with regard to the handling of cases of violence against women noted that the “persistence of harmful practices, pervasive gender stereotypes and deeply entrenched patriarchal social and cultural norms is of serious concern.”

The Special Rapporteur stated that it also received reports indicating that the legal basis of the National Commission for Women is not in accordance with international standards; that the institution lacks foundational, functional, operational, political and financial independence. The report also stated that there a “number of allegations highlighted the Commission’s inability to deal with complaints effectively and undertake independent investigations into violations of women’s rights.”

The report is also deeply concerned about the prevalence of dowry-related practices throughout the country and the increasing number violence and deaths related to dowry payment.

Violence against Sex workers
For perhaps the first time, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, underscored the need to address the violence faced within sex work from state and non – state actors and the lack of avenues for legal redress. It notes that sex workers in India are “exposed to a range of abuse including physical attacks, and harassment by clients, family members, the community and State authorities”.

It further states that “sex workers are forcibly detained and rehabilitated and consistently lack legal protection”; and that they “face challenges in gaining access to essential health services, including for treatment for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases”.

Violence against minority women
Commenting on violence faced by women belong to minority communities, the report stated that impunity for crimes relating to communal violence is “the norm”. The recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women relating to the Gujarat massacre have not been fully addressed as yet. Moreover, the draft Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill has been pending in Parliament for over eight years; despite the necessity for such a law.

The report has also urged the government to Repeal, as a matter of urgency, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act and ensure that criminal prosecution of members of the Armed Forces is free from legal barriers.

Main observations made by the Special Rapporteur
Violence against women in India is systematic and occurs in the public and private spheres. Women are discriminated against and subordinated not only on the basis of sex, but on other grounds, such as caste, class, ability, sexual orientation, tradition and other realities. The manifestations of violence against women are a reflection of the structural and institutional inequality that is a reality for most women in India.

Sexual violence

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2012, 2.84 cases of rape were reported every hour. Many interlocutors stated that there was a general sense of insecurity for women in public spaces, especially in urban settings. Women are easy targets of attacks, including sexual violence, whether while using public transportation or sanitation facilities or on the way to collect wood and water.

Civil and political rights
In terms of women’s participation in parliaments, India stands at 111 out of 188 States as per the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The proportion of female judges is very low. At the local level, there have been numerous allegations of abuse of authority by and patriarchal attitudes of women elected to Gram Panchayats (whether by choice or through coercive influences) and of abuse by community leaders, including members of the illegal informal courts of the Khap Panchayats.

The Special Rapporteur stated that she could not engage directly with Gram Panchayats despite her requests.

Violence against women in the family

The physical, sexual and psychological abuse of women in the private sphere is widely tolerated by the State and the community. The perpetrators include husbands, in-laws and other family members. The widespread socioeconomic dependency of women subordinates them to their husbands and other family members. The fear of social exclusion and marginalization, and the lack of effective responses to violence, keeps them in a context of continuous violence and intimidation. The report also noted the prevalence of honour crimes in the country.

As per National Crime Records Bureau there is also an alarming increase in violence and killings linked to dowry payments – as reported under the Dowry Prohibition Act since 2008 and a significant increase in such crimes since 2010. Concerns about the lack of effective implementation of the law were noted.

Sex ratio
Research has documented a trend of declining girl-child sex ratio from 962 per 1,000 males in 1981, to 945 in 1991, to 927 in 2001, to 914 in 2011. Patriarchal norms and socioeconomic factors have reportedly fuelled the decline. The desire for sons has led to a “policing” of pregnancies by spouses and families through prenatal monitoring systems. The results can lead to sex-selective abortions, which are often forced on women in violation of their sexual and reproductive rights. Despite specific legislation to address this problem, including stringent measures in case of contravention, there is a continuing prevalence of sex-selection practices in some states.


Early marriage and forced marriage

With regard to early and/or forced marriages, the implementation of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 has resulted in some reduction in the overall percentage of early marriages. However, there are significant gaps in the legislation, particularly in the Penal Code, whereby child marriages are allowed through the practice of declaring them voidable, not void.

Caste-based violence
Dalit and Adivasi women and women from other scheduled castes and tribes and other “backward classes” are frequent victims of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, as well as violence. The intergenerational nature of caste-based discrimination condemns women to a life of exclusion, marginalization and disadvantage in every sphere of life. Many of those women are denied an education and economic opportunities, and perform dangerous and unprotected work, including bonded labour (debt bondage) and manual scavenging, which are both widely regarded as forms of forced labour and modern forms of slavery.

Communal violence
Numerous testimonies shared on recurrent episodes of communal violence against religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians; reflect a deep sense of insecurity and trauma of women living in those communities. Experiences included women being stripped, burned, attacked with objects inserted into their vaginas and sexually assaulted in myriad ways because of their religious identity.

It was reported that perpetrators of those crimes usually held positions of authority and often went unpunished. Further, those minorities are allegedly excluded from access to education, employment and adequate housing on equal terms with other citizens, despite the existence of affirmative action schemes and measures by the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the National Commission for Minorities.

Women with disabilities
Women with disabilities face multiple challenges, including, for example, the lack of adequate access to public spaces, utilities and buildings, and often experience harassment in public. The Special Rapporteur was informed of violence perpetrated against women with disabilities in State-sponsored shelters.

Lesbian and Transgender women
Section 377 of the Penal Code criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature”. This particularly affects the protection rights of lesbian and transgender women and has been used by parents as an excuse to prevent homosexuality in their families. The mere perception of different sexual orientation is sufficient to put people at risk of violence and is a contributory factor to the inability of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community to report cases of violence.

Sex workers
Sex workers are exposed to a range of abuse, including physical attacks and harassment by clients, family members, the community and State authorities. Many sex workers are forcibly detained and rehabilitated, and they also face a consistent lack of legal protection. Many face challenges in gaining access to essential health services, including for treatment for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. A recent order of the Supreme Court of India took the position that a sex worker engaged in such work to survive and was “not leading a life of dignity”. The Special Rapporteur noted a tendency to conflate sex work with trafficking in persons, and when sex workers are identified as victims of trafficking, the assistance that is provided to them is not targeted to their specific needs.

Trafficking of women and girls
The trafficking of women and girls from, and to, India was reported as widespread. Disadvantaged women from minority groups, scheduled castes and tribes and the “backward castes” are usually the main victims. Women who are trafficked and forced into prostitution are left unable to defend their rights, and lack access to rehabilitation and compensation for such crimes. This lack of protection and prioritization of the problem by the State has intensified the violence perpetrated against them by criminals or those involved in trafficking practices.

The complicity of State officials in human trafficking was also reported as a concern. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 and its amendments are reportedly more directed at safeguarding public moral than combating trafficking in line with the protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

Widows
Widows also face particular vulnerabilities, as they are often denied and dispossessed of property by their in-laws following the death of a spouse. In addition, social exclusion and poverty lead some widows to engage in sex work and prostitution, and their children to perform hazardous labour or beg on the streets.

Forced evictions
The State’s efforts to foster economic growth and implement development projects are allegedly often conducted without adequate consultations with affected communities, with the sole objective being one of economic growth at any cost.

The consequences for women include being forced to live in insecure environments, displacement; the degradation of their environment, the loss of land and livelihoods and forcible evictions. Many victims are left without adequate relocation alternatives, forcing them to live in slums or on the streets.

Witch-hunting

The Special Rapporteur was informed of brutal acts of violence against women, including executions, commonly referred to as “witch-hunting”. The stigma that is attached to women, who are labeled a “witch”, and the rejection they experience within their communities, leads to various violations and is an obstacle to gaining access to justice. Such labeling affects family members across generations. There is reportedly little or no official investigation into such violations.

Violence condoned or perpetrated by the State
Women living in militarized regions, such as Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states, live in a constant state of siege and surveillance, whether in their homes or in public.

Information received through both written and oral testimonies highlighted the use of mass rape, allegedly by members of the State security forces, as well as acts of enforced disappearance, killings and acts of torture and ill-treatment, which were used to intimidate and to counteract political opposition and insurgency. Testimonies also highlight the impact of that situation on women’s health, including psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, fear psychosis and severe anxiety, with such conditions having a negative impact on women’s physical well-being.

Additionally, the freedoms of movement, association and peaceful assembly are frequently restricted. The specific legal framework that governs those areas, namely, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and its variations, allows for the overriding of due process rights and nurtures a climate of impunity and a culture of both fear and resistance by citizens.

Custodial violence
In 2012 there were 20 women’s prisons and 21 centres for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. Furthermore there are rehabilitation centres for sex workers. Women account for 4.4 per cent of all inmates in the country. Women prisoners are scattered across the country, often in violation of international standards aimed at ensuring that those wishing to maintain family relationships during custody can do so. Concerns were raised about a lack of adequate protective measures to ensure the safety of inmates, including from gender-related killings. In 2012, 55 deaths of female inmates were registered, of which eight were suicides.

Fair trial rights

Fair trial rights, equality before the law and equal protection of the law were affected by numerous challenges, beginning with the reporting of cases of violence against women to the police. Many interlocutors said that victims were often discouraged from reporting to the police and that many women did not file a complaint owing to fear of reprisals or lack of guarantees of adequate shelter and access to livelihoods. Informal dispute settlement alternatives are often sought, allegedly by police, family members or community leaders. Many interlocutors described the complete or partial absence of legal, housing, security and financial assistance measures for victims. To be able to officially report complaints and continue throughout the often lengthy judicial process in safety and with an adequate standard of living is not an option for many women.

The Special Rapporteur received information indicating that human rights defenders, including women’s organizations, face numerous challenges, including harassment, intimidation and reprisals. Those concerns echo the findings contained in the 2011 report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Profit-oriented microfinance institutions
The Special Rapporteur noted concerns with regard to profit-oriented microfinance institutions involving microfinance products for women, and the failure of the State to protect and prevent abuses. Vulnerable women reportedly receive multiple loans and are sold financial products with little or no information, and the unequal bargaining power between such institutions and clients is not addressed by regulation.

Such practices result in over-indebtedness and the inability to pay back, which leads to harassment and threats and women being excluded from their families and communities. Some have reportedly committed suicide as a result of such abuse. It is unclear if the larger problem is a lack of, or inadequate, regulation of microfinance institutions.

Domestic workers
Women employed as domestic workers are often irregular migrants and unregistered women who operate in a poorly regulated labour market and who are usually considered as belonging to the bottom of a social class. They become easy targets for abusive employers, who force them to work long hours in return for low salaries and often deduct amounts for leave days taken. Many are prevented from using the employer’s sanitary facilities and are forced to defecate and bathe in public, and are subjected to various forms of harassment and violence.

Violence against women in the transnational sphere
Many women refugees and asylum seekers are unskilled workers who often perform hazardous labour in urban and informal settings. While access to education and health care is provided for free by the Government, access to livelihoods is still a challenge, particularly in urban or semi-urban areas. Many of those women earn low wages and are forced to live in small and overcrowded apartments, with a lack of access to basic sanitation in less developed urban settings. Such factors contribute to poor health conditions and other vulnerabilities.

Language barriers often impede their ability to gain access to health care, education and the justice system. Despite improvements in criminal law and police procedures, women refugees and asylum seekers continue to voice safety concerns, as they are frequent targets of attacks and harassment by employers, landlords and community members in public and private spheres.

Economic rights and the right to development

Economic development focus for women remains one of subsistence and does not necessarily take into account, or address sufficiently, the gendered and class nature of systemic and structural inequality and discrimination.

Whereas the participation of all citizens in the economy is considerable, women’s labour force participation is significantly lower, at 25.7 per cent, as compared to men at 77.4 per cent. An International Labour Organization source indicates that the participation of women in the workforce fell from 37.3 per cent in 2004/05 to 29.0 per cent in 2009/10.

While job opportunities for women are in decline, women were found to be in precarious jobs requiring low skills and offering low and unequal wages. Daily earnings for women in recent decades has been comparatively lower than those of men in virtually all sectors

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace
Legal measures have been instituted to address sexual harassment in the workplace. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 defines sexual harassment comprehensively and is largely in line with the 1997 Vishaka judgment. It provides for complaints committees in all workplaces employing at least 10 persons. Moreover, while penalties are prescribed in the event of a false or malicious complaint, the Act seeks to prevent the revictimization of victims who are unable to provide adequate proof or substantiate a complaint.

Social and cultural rights
Pervasive gender stereotyping, whether in the media, in the community or in discourses by public officials, was highlighted as an impediment to women’s development. The pervasive culture of denigrating and marginalizing women’s perspectives, concerns and also their identity was an issue that was raised by several interlocutors. Concerns were also raised about the resulting impact on the social standing of women. According to official data, between 2011 and 2012 the number of cases involving insult to the modesty of women increased by 7 per cent.

In 1986, the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act was enacted to prohibit indecent representation in advertisements, publications, writings and paintings or in any other manner. New amendments have been proposed to include new forms of communication, to strengthen penalties and to provide for preventive measures. No official information was shared as to accountability measures to address the continuing occurrence of such stereotyping by either State or non-State actors.

State’s obligation to eliminate violence against women
States are required to exercise due diligence to prevent and respond to all acts of violence against women. A comprehensive system of prevention and protection, with real prospects of mitigating harm, altering outcomes and ensuring accountability, must be the norm.

National Commission for Women
The legal basis of the National Commission for Women is not in accordance with international standards; that the institution lacks foundational, functional, operational, political and financial independence; and that the Commission is generally unable to adapt to the evolving and transformative demands of the human rights of women.

According to section 3 of the National Commission for Women Act, 1990, the Commission’s composition is determined by the central Government. A number of allegations highlighted the Commission’s inability to deal with complaints effectively and undertake independent investigations into violations of women’s rights. Reports also reflect the Commission’s failure to address the causes and consequences of violence against women, including, for example, by finding that no particular religious group was targeted during the 2002 Gujarat massacre; by consistently justifying sexual assault on women as a result of “provocative dressing”; by its inability, over many years, to promote much needed law reform; and by denying reports of sexual violence by security forces, including in regions governed by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts.

Domestic Violence

The lack of implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was a concern often raised. Under the Act, women victims require the assistance of a protection officer to lodge a complaint and to file a domestic incident report. The recruitment and deployment of protection officers in the country is limited; they often work part-time and lack the resources to assist victims to file complaints. For instance, in the State of Rajasthan, with a population including approximately 27 million women, there are only 607 designated protection officers and 118 organizations registered as service providers.

Pregnant Sex Worker Brutally Assaulted by Satara Cops

Sex workers India

Women’s groups in the country are demanding stern action against the policemen in Satara who assaulted a pregnant sex worker causing a miscarriage

By Team FI

Women’s organisations in the country are outraged that even after one month no action has been taken against the policemen who brutally assaulted a pregnant sex worker in Satara, Maharastra, causing a miscarriage. The incident occurred on 2nd  April,  around 7.30 pm, when Anu Mokal, who was four months pregnant, and Anjana Ghadge were bringing dinner for their friend who was admitted in the civil hospital.

When they were passing the Satara bus stand area, senior Police Inspector Dayanand Dhome started shouting at them using abusive language. When they told him that they were taking food for their friend, he allegedly called them liars. Dhome and his subordinates started beating Anu and her friend Anjana. Dhome repeatedly kicked them and said that women like Anu are a ‘shame’. Her pleas that she was four months pregnant fell on deaf ears. Anu and Anjana were detained and put in a lockup.

On the following day they were produced before the magistrate and were released after a payment of Rs 1200 fine for an offense not known to them. They were taken to the civil hospital by members of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad [VAMP] an organisation that works among sex workers and Anu received medication.  However, on 5th April, she suffered a miscarriage.

Anu has filed a complaint against Inspector Dhome and his colleagues with the Satara Superintendent of Police M. M. Prasanna. SANGRAM, (an organisation that runs the Maharashtra State AIDS Society HIV/AIDS prevention project with women in sex work and sexual minorities in Satara District), has also sent a written complaint to the Home Minister R.R.Patil, SP M.M  Prasanna, and the Regional DIG Tukaram Chavhan, demanding that action be taken against Dayanad Dhome and others, but to no avail. DSP Prasanna told a delegation from VAMP on 30th April that an enquiry has been instituted but he did not commit as to when one can expect its result.

Sign online petition Justice For Anu Mokal

Sex Work: Speaking up for human rights

sex workers

By VAMP

Sex workers in a small town in Maharashtra, India, march for change on 3rd March, International Sex Workers Rights Day.

Either reviled or pitied by the state, society and social workers, sex workers – female, male and transgender – have now dared to break out of the victim mode and demand that they be seen as real human beings with rights, needs, fears, hopes and aspirations, just like anyone else. After decades of struggle, they are now slowly beginning to be recognized as persons and citizens.

Till date, for feminism, prostitution has symbolized oppression, victimization and the exploitation of womanhood. Feminism looks at prostitution through the framework of a rigid understanding of patriarchy, viewing it as objectifying women’s bodies, and as the commercialization of sex. Hence, for feminists, prostitutes are victims of unequal power relations between the sexes. No ‘real’ woman will agree to do sex work because if she does so she is living under the illusion of ‘false consciousness’. We hear activists talk of prostitution as ‘female sexual slavery’ and ‘sexual victim-hood’. These perceptions echo the early reformist discourse, which views women as needing to be protected, preferably by laws, from lustful men.

A complex issue that has troubled feminists is the question of consent. The women’s movement has raised the issue of consent in sexual relations mainly within the domestic / marital sphere. In prostitution, adult women consent to exchange sexual services for money, but this is disputed and the ability to consent is contested.

This is because feminism posits prostitution as violence, which forecloses any discussion over whether women can actively choose sex work as a livelihood option. Many women report entering sex work because of ‘majboori’ or difficult circumstances, mainly poverty, and this leads them

Sex workers Pride march India

Sex workers pride march : Photo courtesy VAMP

to think of sex work as a way of livelihood and thus work. But, without finding out the multiplicity of experiences, feminists have held that women are trafficked into sex work because of their vulnerability as women. Here, exchanging sexual services for money [sex work] is conflated with selling of a body to another [trafficking].

The basic tenet of anti-trafficking rhetoric is that bodies are unwillingly ‘sold’ and transported across borders. This dovetails perfectly with the feminist argument that prostitution involves no choice and is the major cause for trafficking. Trafficking is not viewed as an issue of poverty that causes many women to willingly enter into agreements with traffickers because they desperately seek livelihoods, escape from home-grown violence, poverty, conflict, or displacement – in short, a better life.

The movement to stop trafficking, by feminist and other groups favoring abolition, is therefore framed as the necessity to stop prostitution.The debates around trafficking also bolster the idea of sex work as violence. Violence against women (VAW) has focused on domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, acid throwing etc. When VAW is conflated with sex work, it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees.

For example, most sex workers report that they experience violence and exploitation by and large at the hands of police and petty local thugs, rather than in sexual relations with clients. It is conveniently forgotten that a greater incidence of VAW occurs in marriages than between sex workers and their clients. Violence that does occur within the field of sex work is used to justify severe action against the sex work industry such as closure of brothels and ‘clean ups’.

The casting of the prostitute as the victim has engendered several positions on prostitution. Because women are conceptualized as ‘slaves’, one approach is to put a stop to prostitution in the literal sense – by demolishing it. The State and other establishments, such as NGOs, often use this abolitionist approach.

Sex workers pride march: Photo courtesy VAMP

Reformism, another feminist position, posits that women in prostitution need reforming because, as women who do sex work, they have no ‘character’. Rescue and rehabilitation strategies are used here. The assumption is that women need saving from sex work and then rehabilitation by giving them alternate jobs.

A third strategy, the regulatory approach, relies on laws. This does not take the stand of banning prostitution but rather accepts that prostitution is here to stay and needs regulation. Laws like the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 (ITPA) in India is a reflection of this approach.

Yet another approach is the rights-based approach – which is silent on the merits or morality of sex work, per se, but contends that women in sex work should have the same rights and entitlements as any other citizen, and the State must act as the duty bearer of these rights.

In India, prostitution is neither legal nor illegal. It has no status. We consider sex work as work, as a business, and do not consider ourselves as either criminals or victims.

In order for the stigma of discrimination to end, and fundamental rights extended to us to carry out our livelihood, societal perception must be transformed. To make the big change happen, small steps must be taken. To speak, to stand up and be counted is a step forward in the campaign for rights – the right to dignity, to work, to earn a livelihood, to education, to health and leisure – rights that are available to all citizens.

VAMP ( (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad) based in Sangli, Maharashtra is an organisation for sex workers.