LOS ANGELES—Just one month after declaring that India’s sex workers should be legally recognized as legitimate members of the labor force, entitling them to all the same benefits and protections as other workers — including COVID-19 relief aid — that country’s National Human Rights Commission has now reversed its stance, dealing a blow to India’s estimated 800,000 sex workers.
On Wednesday, the NHRC issued a new statement saying that sex workers in the world’s second-most populous country should not be allowed to register as legal workers after all, according to a Reuters report.
Instead, the NHRC called for sex workers to receive government economic relief on “humanitarian grounds.” Sex work has long been at least technically legal under India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956, but most activities that support sex work, such as operating a brothel, carry criminal penalties.
The NHRC’s “advisory” issued on October 7, calling for sex workers to be recognized as legitimate laborers, was met with controversy. Anti-trafficking activists claimed that all sex workers were victims of trafficking, and that the human rights body was legitimizing their victimization.
“It is an absolute failure on our part to not provide viable options to women to engage in productive work,” wrote one of the country’s leading anti-trafficking activists, Sunitha Krishnan, at the time. “Our law lays down that the institution of prostitution is illegal. Sex is either a consensual engagement between two adults or it is rape.”
But sex worker support groups wrote a letter to the NHRC with more than 11,000 signatories, opposing Krishnan.
“We affirm the autonomy and dignity of women, be they sex workers or victims of sexual violence. No organization or individual can arrogate to themselves the authority to decide their destinies,” the letter stated.
Smarajit Jana, founder of a sex worker collective in Kolkata, India, told Reuters that the NHRC’s reversal, apparently giving in to pressure from Krishnan and other activists, was “a failure.”
“This is a setback,” Jana told the news agency. “Twill not be recognized as full-fledged citizens of the country, having full access to various citizenship documents and right to social and development schemes.”
Sex workers in India have seen their incomes evaporate during the pandemic in the country where more than 128,000 have died of COVID-19 so far. In addition, they have frequently been victims of violence, as they find themselves wrongly blamed for spreading the novel coronavirus.
“Sex workers have no resources and are stigmatized when they look for other jobs,” Bani Das, co-founder of a charity that supports children of sex workers, told Reuters. “During the lockdown, they were asking for work but nobody took them.”
Photo By Laurie Jones / Wikimedia Commons