By Astrid Zweynert
NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - It was a noble sentiment when India’s highest court proclaimed that sex workers had a right to life and dignity, just like anybody else under the country’s constitution.
Dismissing an appeal by a man sentenced to life for murdering a sex worker, the Supreme Court also directed the government to provide vocational training to sex workers to help rehabilitate them.
“A woman is compelled to indulge in prostitution not for pleasure but because of abject poverty,” the court said last month. “If such woman is granted opportunity to avail some technical or vocational training, she would be able to earn her livelihood by such vocational training and skill instead of selling her body.”
Sex workers were not impressed.
“This is feeble sympathy,” Veena, a male-to-female transgender sex worker, told TrustLaw at a news conference on International Sex Workers Day in New Delhi earlier this month. Veena, who goes by one name, represents Karnataka Sex Workers Union in the southern city of Bangalore.
What many sex workers want more than anything is to have their work decriminalised. In India, selling sex is not illegal but activities around sex work, such as soliciting or running a brothel, are punishable with fines and even imprisonment.
“If we can’t solicit clients without getting arrested, we will naturally rely on pimps to carry on our trade,” Veena said. “What we need are practical measures that free us from exploitation created by the law itself.”
The government has until May 4 to detail the steps it is taking to implement vocational training. But one thing is for sure among sex workers - forced rehabilitations carried out by the state in the name of “rescuing them from their plight” is not the way forward.
The idea that sex workers should be rehabilitated may be almost as old as the profession itself. It comes from a belief that every sex worker wants to get out of sex work.
To be sure, many sex workers in India enter the trade against their will. Levels of violence against sex workers are high and they grapple with other problems, such as access to health care and high HIV infection rates.
But campaigners argue that this does not necessarily mean they want to change their way of life and enter rehabilitation schemes that are based on the moralistic premise that sex work is immoral.
They also say such thinking does a great disservice to the collective struggles by the sex workers’ movement in India, which for nearly a decade has been demanding rights, not sympathy.
One of the most successful initiatives among sex workers has been the Sonagachi project, named after the district of central Kolkata where it is based.
The project was started in 1992 and its approach is based around three R’s: respect, reliance and recognition – respecting sex workers, relying on them to run the program, and recognising their professional and human rights.
Sex workers are trained to act as peer-educators, and sent to brothels to teach others about HIV and AIDS, and the importance of using condoms with clients.
The campaign also addresses the social and practical barriers that prevent sex workers from using condoms.
Sex workers and pimps are educated about the economic benefits of enforcing condom use in their brothels. Police have been persuaded to stop raiding brothels because such raids often result in sex workers losing income, making them less likely to insist on condom use.