The conflation of trafficking and sexual exploitation with sex work distorts the discourse on sex workers’ rights. South Asia Women’s Fund has been focused on challenging the traditional anti-trafficking discourse by supporting rights based interventions that amplify the voices and decisions of women in sex work. We support organisations and initiatives working to challenge existing socio-cultural norms and notions that consider women as powerless victims so as to ensure that women have the agency to exercise their right to safe mobility, migration and labour.
One such intervention is the consortium of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) that involves sex worker collectives, networks and federation members in seven states of India (Gujrat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka). NNSW, in partnership with Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) is strengthening sex worker-led interventions, building cross movement alliances for secure livelihoods and accessing affirmative action and justice.
In India, sex work per se is not illegal but is considered ‘criminal’ and ‘immoral’ and the state criminal-justice system perpetuates this discourse. As a consequence sex workers face disproportionate levels of violence including police abuse, sexual assault, rape, harassment, extortion, abuse from clients, agents, intimate partners, local residents, and public authorities, but cannot access justice and state services. Sex workers who have faced violence have reported being turned away by government health services and lack protection under the law due to their `immoral’ work.
There is a global resurgence of abolitionist policies, justified by defining sex work within the framework of slavery and trafficking. The draft Trafficking of Persons Bill in India equates all sex work with trafficking and therefore has no provision for consensual or voluntary sex work. Sex workers were also left out of the consultation process during the drafting of the bill. This is indicative of another problem: one that treats sex workers as both victims and criminals. Even those voluntarily doing sex work sometimes fall prey to the conventional ‘rescue-rehabilitation-repatriation’ position, which assumes no agency on the part of sex workers.
But there are some who are pushing back hard for the rights of sex workers and the decriminalisation of sex work in India. The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) along with organisations like SANGRAM strongly believe that ‘sex work is work’. Kiran Deshmukh the national coordinator of NNSW [Delhi] has said that governments should recognise `Sex work as Decent work’ [ILO standard] and it should have all the protections given to other forms of labour.
The consortium, in addition to strengthening the grassroots sex worker rights movement, is working towards fostering dialogue with other rights based movements such as those advocating for women’s rights, queer rights, health rights and Dalit rights. It will also work to engage with UN agencies, commissions and panels as well as international treaty bodies to strengthen the rights of sex workers nationally, regionally and globally.
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