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Those in sex work are workers entitled to govt schemes: 12,000 activists support NHRC

Counterview Desk

A statement signed by nearly 12,000 women’s rights activists and organizations across India, “Sex Workers have Human Rights too”, has taken strong exception to by a letter by Sunitha Krishnan and her organisation, Prajwala, to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which seeks to reduce sex workers to hapless victims of violence and not citizens entitled to rights.
A well-known organization, Prajwala seeks to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate sex-trafficked victims into society. Krishnan’s letter is in response to NHRC’s recent advisory, “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of Covid19”, which recommends that sex workers should be recognised as informal workers in order that they are able to get worker benefits.
Stating that they, as also sex worker rights organisations and sex workers are “deeply disturbed” by Krishnan’s letter, which raises “myopic and moralistic objections” in the NHRC letter, is actually “a direct attack on the rights of vulnerable communities like sex workers in the context of Covid-19 – the biggest pandemic of our times”, insisting, the letter “is violative of women’s rights.”
The signatories and mainly from 255 networks and organisations include Forum Against Oppression of Women, Stree Mukti Sanghatana, Anandi, Masum Sahyar, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatana, All-India Progressive Writers’ Association, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Wada Na Todo Abhiya; sex workers’ networks All India Network of Sex Workers, National Network of Sex Workers, Taaras, Coalition; queer and trans organisations like Labia and Infosem; and NGOs Naz Foundation India Trust, Lawyers Collective, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, International Women's Rights Action Watch, International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The statement says that the NHRC advisory “rightly acknowledges those in sex work as workers and citizens entitled to welfare measures and access to schemes for migrant workers in these pandemic times”, emphasising, “By reducing those in sex work merely to victims of sexual violence the letter from Prajwala divests them of basic rights and entitlements that fundamentally acknowledge that they are even human.”
The statement emphasises, “Sex worker collectives are fighting exploitative practices like and the self-regulatory processes they have set up are – as acknowledged by the Supreme Court – far more effective in fighting trafficking and exploitation from within even while evolving alternative livelihoods for those women who want to opt out of sex work.”

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As activists and organisations working for decades on issues related to violence against women it is deeply disturbing to see the damaging letter by Sunitha Krishnan and her organisation, Prajwala (Ltr.N0.06/CF/Praj/2020) to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). 
This letter, in response to NHRC’s advisory titled “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of Covid19” (File No R-17/8/2020-PRP&P-Part (3) dt October 7) is a direct attack on the rights of vulnerable communities like sex workers in the context of COVID 19 – the biggest pandemic of our times.
The myopic and moralistic objections in the letter to the NHRC advisory – which recommended that sex workers be recognised as informal workers in order that they are able to get worker benefits – are violative of women’s rights at several levels:
First, it totally delegitimises the attempt of the State and the NHRC through this advisory (put together with the help of several civil society organisations working on women and human rights), to set right a historical wrong. The advisory affirms the basic rights due to adult consenting women in sex work as citizens which have been denied because their livelihood is stigmatised and criminalised.
The entitlements mentioned in the NHRC advisory include additional nutrition for lactating mothers, temporary documents so that they can access welfare measures like public distribution system (PDS); inclusion in schemes and benefits for migrant workers since many of them are living shadow lives in cities that they have migrated to in search of livelihood; recognition that they can also be victims of domestic violence from partners and families that increased during the lockdown and pandemic; free testing and treatment for Covid19 and continued health care services for prevention and treatment of HIV. 
By denying the fact that these women are citizens and workers, instead reducing them merely to victims of sexual violence the letter divests them of basic rights and entitlements that fundamentally acknowledge that they are even human.
It is indeed unfortunate that by conflating trafficking and sexual violence which are illegal and criminal acts with sex work that per se is not illegal in law, the letter wilfully ignores the voices of millions of adult women who independently sustain themselves and their families through sex work.
By consistently dehumanising these women for the work they do by reducing them merely to “sex slaves” who need to be “saved” through forced incarceration and/or inappropriate rehabilitation programmes this letter does a great disservice to those very women that organisations like Prajwala purport to support.
Further, by also demonising organisations and sex worker collectives that are fighting for their basic rights and dignity as citizens and workers and also fighting exploitative practices like trafficking from within, the letter wilfully ignores the fact that even the Supreme Court in its various rulings has made a clear distinction between adult women who are in sex work by choice and minors and women who have been trafficked and exploited for monitory gain by third parties.
It also wilfully ignores the fact that these organisations and the self-regulatory processes they have set up are – as acknowledged by the Supreme Court – far more effective in fighting trafficking and exploitation from within even while evolving alternative livelihoods for those women who want to opt out of sex work.
Blanket statement like 'institutionalised commercial sex work is akin to slavery and can’t be termed as work' reinforces a highly colonial, moralistic and criminalised approach
Second, through these objections, the letter also delegitimises the efforts of women’s groups across the country and through the decades which while addressing gender-based violence have sought to affirm the autonomy of every woman to make her own life choices while dealing with violence, exploitation and discrimination – this could be violence within the family, the community or her work place, and the workplace could be the street, office or domestic space. 
Be it domestic violence or sexual violence, there is an attempt to move away from patriarchal, moralistic and patronising approaches that end up infantilising the woman divesting her of agency, towards ensuring structural and institutional changes that enable and empower her to make her own choices.
Sunitha Krishnan
Therefore women in sex work too instead of being perceived collectively solely as women who need to be saved and rehabilitated, should be assured that existing social processes and legal structures can help them deal with the violence and exploitation without being stigmatised or criminalised for their work.
Instead of understanding this complex negotiation that women make to survive, the letter unfortunately proceeds to dismiss the agency of a woman who chooses to stay on in sex work (even if she has been initially trafficked) as somebody “who after many years of exploitation normalises the abuse and believes that it is her destiny and considers her ill fated destiny as work”.
By this definition of exploitative living conditions, should we then also criminalise marriages and families since domestic violence studies tell us that one in every three women is a victim of domestic violence since it is a fact that women and after years of exploitation have normalised the abuse within marriage believing that it is their ill-fated destiny?
Organisations such as Prajwala that are working for “rehabilitation” are at liberty to provide alternative livelihood choices for women who are living and working in multiple exploitative conditions including those who might have been forced into sex work but these cannot be coercive.
Blanket statement made in the letter like “institutionalised commercial sex work is akin to slavery and can’t be termed as work” reinforces a highly colonial, moralistic and criminalised approach to a complex site of work where both “commercial” and “transactional” sex coexist. Such an approach ultimately ends up pushing women workers from marginalised and vulnerable communities further into criminalised spaces from which it is more challenging to seek any form of help or justice except that of forced rehabilitation.
The autonomy and dignity of women be they sex workers or victims of sexual violence are nonnegotiable in democratic societies and no organisation or individual can arrogate to themselves the authority to decide their destinies. Instead of seeing organisations of sex workers as adversaries, it would be more effective to offer solidarity to enable women who want to opt out of sex work to access training and opportunities to make and implement these choices in a non-judgmental atmosphere.
Otherwise we would only be complicit in perpetuating the worst of patriarchal practices and moral policing that are constantly judging and punishing women – especially those who do not conform to the dominant notion of a “good” woman – one who does not belong to the acceptable class, caste or gender norm.
The very comprehensive and inclusive advisory from the NHRC gives all of us working with survivors of sexual violence as well as women workers an opportunity to examine our biases, strategies and interventions. We hope we can all rise to that challenge.

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