The NHRC, in its advisory on ‘rights of women’ in the context of Covid-19’, directed the Centre and state governments to enable sex workers to access welfare schemes under the category of informal workers.
The NHRC’s advisory was based on an impact assessment by an 11-member committee of experts comprising of civil society organizations, domain experts, and representatives from the government.
Welcoming the move, Kiran Deshmukh, National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) termed the advisory as a milestone in the fight for rights of sex workers in the country.
“We are now counted as workers and this is a beginning for us. This is a moment of celebration for all the sex workers who are fighting every day for their right to live and earn by providing sexual services without stigma, discrimination, and violence,” said Deshmukh. Deshmukh added that the NNSW has also made submissions to the committee by highlighting important issues and recommendations. Currently, the NNSW has over 1.5 lakh sex workers as members across eight states.
The pandemic-induced lockdown has crippled the lives of sex workers as most of them have lost livelihood and homes, points out activists.
“This will lead to the reduction of exploitative practices and safe working conditions of sex workers,” says Meena Seshu of SANGRAM, an organization working for sex workers’ rights.
In its advisory, the NHRC has directed states to provide immediate relief measures such as temporary documents to access PDS and other welfare schemes. Activists say that this will help many non- ration cardholders to avail ration.
The NHRC also advises the inclusion of migrant sex workers into schemes for migrant workers, free testing, treatment for COVID-19, and providing them with essentials such as soaps and sanitizers.
Seshu feels that the advisory can be used as a tool for further advocacy. “The advisory has been sent to all states and departments. Now it’s up to the community based organizations and collectives to access it,” she says adding that this will lead to a change in mindsets especially among the police force and implementing agencies.
The activists also point out that their long-standing struggle for rights has resulted in some positive moves from the judiciary and administration. In a recent ruling, the Bombay High Court held that there is no provision under the law, which makes prostitution a criminal offense.
In another gesture, the Maharashtra government passed a resolution in July asking the district officials to provide essential services to sex workers who have lost livelihood during the pandemic.
P Devi of NNSW points out that the advisory is a step in the right direction. “In Andhra Pradesh, we submitted a memorandum to the women's commission to recognize sex work as work. But the DGP said that they would have considered our plea if the NHRC or NCW came up with an advisory. Now that we have this, we will be able to use it as a better tool for advocacy", she said.
The NHRC advisory also directs that sex workers have to be provided a moratorium on all loans taken from banks and other financial institutions and in cases of harassment or violence, action must be taken by concerned authorities.
Aarthi Pai, a lawyer associated with SANGRAM, says that the NHRC recognition is a critical step to ensure dignity for sex workers. “Any work that provides livelihood is work. The future depends on how the sex workers' movement takes it forward. One should remember how sex workers groups have used favorable court rulings to talk about violence and other crimes against them,” says Pai.
Pai also feels that it will step up dialogues in strengthening the identity of the sex workers.
“Discussions were always happening. There is a need to stop looking at sex workers only from the prism of trafficking. It’s an adult choice and we need to ensure that they get support and protection like in any other job in the informal sector,” she says.
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