A week ago, a panel of the Supreme Court has recommended that police take no criminal action against consenting adult sex workers. It also proposed an elaborate mechanism for providing an alternate livelihood and rehabilitation for sex workers. The panel, headed by advocate Pradip Ghosh, will submit its report in March recommending measures to protect the rights and ensuring better work conditions for sex workers. At this juncture, let us attempt to dwell into the less tapped dimension of women empowerment – the plight of sex-workers, to make sure the aforementioned momentum results in affirmative action, which is both comprehensive and inclusive.
Prostitution As A Feminist Struggle:
As long as it is done voluntarily, a woman can use her body in exchange for material benefit. The law however, forbids a sex-worker to carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place. There are around three million women in the sex industry in India today. While some of them are a by-product of rural-urban migration, poverty and unemployment, most others are pushed into this profession by traffickers who source them from the lower strata of interior India, Bangladesh and Nepal. By and large, it is ‘helplessness’ which is the rule.
Criminalise, Decriminalise Or Completely Legalise:
Strictly speaking, sex work by adult women is not illegal in India – however, living off their earning, soliciting and running a brothel are illegal. According to the law dealing with sex workers is the Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA) (enacted in 1956 and subsequently amended twice in 1986 and in 2006), sex-workers can practice their trade privately but cannot legally solicit or 'seduce' customers in public. Besides, unlike as is the case with other professions, sex workers are not protected under normal labour laws, but they possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation.
The 2006 amendment has included some provisions to protect sex workers from harassment. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA is a 1986 amendment of legislation passed in 1956 as a result of the signing by India of the United Nations' declaration in 1950 in New York on the suppression of trafficking. The act, then called the All India Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA), was amended to the current law.
A complete ban or a prohibition law on such a grey area would harm more. A sensitised stance of addressing the issue is imperative. In terms of addressing the issue, the works of Non Governmental Organisations like Kranti-India are humble steps. The situation needs help from many such organisations at the grass-root level. This would help one identify and subsequently eradicate trafficking, thereby, making it conducive for state action.
However, the state, being the apex institution for governance and maintenance of public order, has a decisive role to play in terms of comprehensive regulation. This starts with demarcating the women who are involuntarily engaged in the trade from the ones who have embraced it by choice. While the former needs to be rehabilitated, the latter should be empowered.
Regulations in terms of issuing IDs, frequent checks, maintenance of hygiene, raising the minimum fee, a hygiene-oriented safe trade, and state action in case of abuse, ‘fair’ redressal in case of a violation instead of mere fines etc., are a few steps worthy of state action.
Criminalising the buyers of ‘coerced’ sex is also a progressive measure as buying ‘coerced’ sex is a reflection of and a contribution to chauvinism. Stern decrees should be imposed on buyers of ‘coerced’ sex when aggrieved upon by the sellers. Laws should be accompanied by immediate corresponding rehabilitation assistance and welfare services for sex-workers. Rehabilitation could be access to vocational training, which could then be expanded to a range of provisions. Over time, this would enable them to be an active fragment in the economy. The contribution of NGOs and Civil Society Institutions should complement the quality and reach of the rehabilitation process.
Prostitution, as a regulated economic activity would be governed and be checked by the phenomenon of 'market-equilibrium'. The resultant scenario could be; a considerable fall in the number of people involved in the trade or, a boom in the number of people involved in a trade, which is regulated and constantly monitored. Either way, the element of order is established, paving way for further regulations.
Mutual Coexistence As The Way Out:
There is no perfectly marginalised good or bad, black or white. The patriarchal evolution of the society has turned everything grey. At this juncture, the entire process needs to be taken up and executed in a phased and integrated manner. Ample amount of funds, infrastructural support, a mature perspective to a sex-worker’s life and the right will for a prolonged duration are vital to back the process. With time, this would yield ‘maturity’ in the citizenry.