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International Sex Workers' Day: A Movement To Uphold The Rights Of Sex Workers

What is International Sex Workers' Day and what does it signify?

Sex workers holding banners and placards.
Sex workers holding banners and placards. PTI

A day to honour the oldest profession across the world; June 2 is observed as the International Sex Workers Day. Marked to raise awareness against the rampant exploitation of sex workers and the terrible condition they live in, the day highlights the abuse and victimisation of the workers. 

According to estimates from the United Nations, since 2009, over 40 million individuals have been working as sex workers. Other jobs like that of pimps and sex content creators are also in the category of sex workers but they face much lower risks in their jobs.

Why is the day celebrated?

On June 2, 1975, hundreds of sex workers had gathered in Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon, France, expressing their frustration and fury over their criminalised and exploitative living conditions. Their demands included freedom from police harassment, a fair investigation into the murders of sex workers, reopening of hotels for their work and so on. 

Going on a strike for eight days, the workers had launched a media campaign, which became one of the first rights movements for sex workers across Europe. 

Inspired by the occupation in Lyon, other sex workers occupied churches in Paris, Marseille, Grenoble, Saint-Étienne and Montpellier.

After gaining momentum and support from political leaders, and feminist and human rights groups, the day was first commemorated in 1995. The focus is to develop concrete policy recommendations to be implemented at local, national, and international levels for sex workers. 

The theme of the day remains the same every year --  ‘Access to Justice’ for sex workers across the world. 

Condition of sex workers in India 

Noting that the attitude of the police towards sex workers is often brutal and violent, the Supreme Court of India earlier this month said that sex workers should be treated with decency and dignity, and the police should not interfere or take any criminal action when an adult engages in consensual sex work. 

In an order on 19 May, the Supreme Court also asked the Centre to clarify its stand on recommendations made by a panel formed by the apex court in 2011, which looked into the prevention of human trafficking and questions of rehabilitation as well as the dignity of sex workers. The Centre in 2016 told the SC that the panel's recommendations were incorporated into draft legislation. However, no law has since been made.

In the absence of such a law, the Supreme Court said that its directives would be valid until a law on the subject is made.

The Supreme Court bench of Justices of L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai, and AS Bopanna said sex workers and their children are covered by the protections of Article 21 of the Constitution of India like every other profession and person.

Article 21 — dubbed the Right to Life — says: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.

The authorities, when dealing with cases concerning trafficking, have to be mindful of this Constitutional protection, said the SC order.

ALSO READ: Love, Loss And Longing Among Kamathipura’s Sex Workers

What are existing Indian laws on sex work?

Sex work in India is governed primarily by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA), but the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Juvenile Justice Act also have provisions dealing with prostitution and trafficking in India, as per an article published by the Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR).

Private prostitution is not illegal in India, but soliciting it, doing it publicly, and owning a brothel are illegal. Despite the illegality of public prostitution, media reports state that the enforcement is lax as places like GB Road are operational.

What changes with SC order?

The Supreme Court order sets limits on police actions regarding sex workers and puts sex workers and their children at par with rest of the people.

Consensual adult sex work and the mere presence of sex workers in a brothel would not warrant an arrest or police interference, as per the SC order. This is important as the police are known for harassing sex workers.

The law makes sex workers living in Red Light Areas vulnerable to police action who while enforcing anti-trafficking laws often cross their limits by taking action against sex workers and their clients who are engaged in consensual and private sex work, noted the ISHR article cited above. This would need to stop as per the SC guidelines.

Moreover, the SC stated that when a sex worker comes forward with a complaint, it would be treated as any other complaint, and she would not be treated as an offender but as a complainant. 

The SC order also prohibits forcible separation of children of sex workers. The order stated, "Further, if a minor is found living in a brothel or with sex workers, it should not be presumed that he/she has been trafficked. In case the sex worker claims that he/she is her son/daughter, tests can be done to determine if the claim is correct and if so, the minor should not be forcibly separated."

ALSO READ: Sex Workers Of Kamathipura: Nowhere To Go, Nowhere To Live

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