Sex workers suffer injustice as National Human Rights Commission takes a U-turn on labour rights

Stuti Raha

21st November 2020

Indian sex workers face setback (Source: Deccan Herald)

Indian sex workers suffered a setback after the National Human Rights Commission took a U-turn and declared that women in prostitution should not be registered as workers or guaranteed any financial aid from the government amidst the plight of COVID-19.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in October of this year, had asked the state governments to recognise sex workers as formal workers. This would have qualified them for benefits and aid from a fund of $23 billion for India's poor population during the coronavirus pandemic.

Activists were divided in their opinions about the stand taken by the watchdog. A few believed that the non-binding advisory was a boon for the estimated 8 lakh sex workers across India while others argued this move would be illegal and lead to legitimising sex trafficking. While prostitution is legal in India, activities associated with it such as soliciting, pimping, and running a brothel are punishable crimes.

The NHRC issued a new statement last week announcing that sex workers could not be registered officially or be labelled as informal workers. According to them, the sex workers should be given help instead on 'humanitarian grounds' amid the pandemic.

Smarajit Jana, founder of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective of sex workers in Kolkata, said to Reuters, "If they are not defined as sex workers, it is a failure to recognise the work they do to earn their livelihood and feed their families." Jana, a representative for about 65,000 sex workers, also added, "This is a setback…they will not be recognised as full-fledged citizens of the country, having full access to various citizenship documents and right to social and development schemes."

Sex workers all over the world have faced losses due to multiple lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19. Many have also suffered violence and been blamed for the spread of the virus. Supiya, a sex worker in Mumbai, said she wasn't getting work and had been unable to provide for her parents as usual from March.

The NHRC —which makes proposals but does not have any power to impose them— mentioned that it deviated from its initial stand after campaigners questioned the legality of their initial advisory that centred around protecting women's rights during COVID-19.

Majority of women face exploitation according to advocates and collectives who said the predicament of sex workers was being neglected. In a letter to the NHRC last month, Aarthi Pai, a legal advisor for the National Network of Sex Workers said that a 'worker identity' would protect sex workers from violence and abuse.

(Sources: Deccan Herald, Hindustan Times, Morning Updates, The Economic Times)

Edited by: Suditi Jha

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