Status of sex workers in India

Status of sex workers in India
Pic source – Hindustan times

Status of sex workers in India “Review the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 that de facto criminalizes sex work and ensure that measures to address trafficking in persons do not overshadow the need for effective measures to protect
the human rights of sex workers.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its
causes and consequences, Mission to India, 1 April 2014,,


Status of sex workers in India There are over 800,000 sex workers in India. However unofficial figures place these numbers far higher.

Organisations of sex workers, United Nations (UN) agencies and Commissions have understood and articulated sex
work as a contractual arrangement where sexual services are negotiated between consenting adults.

Implicit in this consent is the act of agency; wherein sex work can be a realistic choice to sell sex. Decriminalisation of sex work is a pre-requisite to ensure the physical and emotional inviolability of sex workers, their right to life, right to freedom of labour, health and reproductive and sexual rights.

Recent research with 3000 sex workers in 14 Indian states also finds a substantial segment of women had prior experience of alternative work and opted for sex work, for better income and livelihood opportunities. The uncertain legal status attached to their work and identity further “invisibilises” them as citizens with associate rights and entitlements.

Shift in global understanding of rights of sex workers. (Status of sex workers in India)

There has been a shift in the understanding of sex worker rights precipitated in part by the global HIV epidemic.
A. The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SR – VAW) has observed that “measures to address
trafficking in persons should not overshadow the need for effective measures to protect the human rights of sex workers”. The SR-VAW has also called for a review of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 in India that
criminalizes sex work.

B. UN Resolutions, International agencies and Commissions have stressed on a rights based response to sex work
and the need to protect rights not just by decriminalising sex work, but by eliminating the unjust application
of non – criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.

i. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific resolution calls on members to address legal
barriers to HIV responses including reviews of national laws, policies with a view to eliminating
discrimination against vulnerable populations.

ii. The Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia,
UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Health,
Commission on HIV and the Law and UNDP Asia Pacific have recommended the decriminalisation of sex
work involving consenting adults.

iii. National Human Rights Institutions have been called on to hold governments accountable for the
protection of sex workers from discrimination, harassment, abuse and violence perpetrated by police or other
government officers.

C. UN organisations, International agencies and Commissions call for recognition of Trafficking in persons for
sexual exploitation and Sex Work as two different concepts to be understood and legislated accordingly.
Sex Work organisations have also called for a review of laws that criminalise third parties who support sex
workers to work within a safe environment.

D. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNDP have emphasised on the need to provide sex workers
with legally enforceable rights to occupational health and safety and right to participate in the process of
developing workplace health and safety standards.

E. Sex workers have been recognised as an invaluable resource in the law and policy reform process with a view
to developing non-judgmental and rights based laws, policies and programmes.

F. Elaborating the scope of Article 6 of CEDAW; General Recommendation 19 calls on States to recognise that
their (sex worker’s) unlawful status makes sex workers vulnerable to violence and hence need equal protection
of laws against rape and other forms of violence.

guarantees States were asked to report on the measures to protect
women in sex work and the effectiveness of these measures.
The CEDAW Committee has recommended the
need for measures to prevent “discrimination against sex workers and ensure that legislation on their right to
safe working conditions is guaranteed”.

G. The Supreme Court of India has observed that sex workers are entitled to a right to life and must be accorded
the protection guaranteed to every citizen. It instructed the State to provide recommendations on the

rehabilitation of sex workers who wish to leave sex work of their own volition and to provide conducive
conditions for sex workers who wish to continue working as sex workers in accordance with Article 21 of the

A Supreme Court panel recommended that Central government and Election Commission issue
voter ID cards, relaxing verification requirements, and state governments and local institutions issue ration
cards to sex workers.

The emerging rights discourse at the global and national level argues that efforts to respect, protect, fulfil and
promote the human rights of sex workers needs to be premised on ensuring their rights as citizens under the
Constitution. Laws, policies and programmes devised in partnerships with sex workers are most likely to be
effective. Despite clear recommendations by international human rights instruments India has failed to recognise the marginalisation,

vulnerabilities and human rights of sex workers. Despite specific requests made by the CEDAW
Committee in its list of issues to the Government of India in 2013, the report submitted by India has not
highlighted the status of sex workers, or specific measures taken to respect, protect, fulfil and promote their human

These are personal views of the author.

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