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Explained: Why a NHRC advisory on sex work has split rights activists down the middle

The NHRC wants sex workers to be classified as informal workers in order that they get government benefits in the time of the pandemic. But a veteran fighter for the rights of trafficked women wants the advisory withdrawn.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune | Updated: October 30, 2020 12:06:39 pm
sex workers, NHRC advisory on sex workers, sex workers informal sector, opposition to NHRC advisory on sex workers, indian express At a shelter for sex workers in New Delhi. (Express Photo/File)

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recognised sex workers as informal workers in their advisory issued on October 7 on “Human Rights of Women in the context of COVID 19”.

After social activist Sunitha Krishnan, founder of the advocacy Prajwala, opposed the advisory, nearly 10,000 sex workers and more than 900 feminists and activists are up in arms. What is the advisory, and why have objections been raised against it?

What is the NHRC advisory related to sex workers?

The NHRC in an effort to secure the rights of all women who have been excluded and marginalised during the Covid-19 pandemic, included sex workers as informal workers in their advisory on ‘Women at Work’.

The advisory, issued on October 7, asked the Ministries of Women and Child Development, Labour, Social Justice, Health, and Consumer Affairs in all states and Union Territories to recognise sex workers as informal workers and register them so they are able to avail the benefits of a worker.

The Ministries have been asked to issue temporary documents so that the sex workers like all other informal workers, can access all welfare measures and health services.

Why is the advisory important?

The advisory included sex workers among groups that they were considered as part of vulnerable and marginal sections of society, thereby considering them as citizens who are deserving of protection of human rights in the time of the pandemic, Meena Seshu, founder of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha, an HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and support organisation in Sangli, Maharashtra said.

To do this, NHRC had sought expert advice, and both the government and constitutional bodies had stood by the protection of the human rights and dignity of sex workers, Chaynika Shah of Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai said.

“We strongly believe that the NHRC advisory which recommended that sex workers be recognised as informal workers is a welcome move, and an important milestone in achieving constitutional rights for sex workers,” Tejaswi Sevekari, Executive Director, Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sangh, said.

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So who is opposing this advisory, and why?

The loudest voice in opposition is that of Sunitha Krishnan, a social activist and who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016, and who runs Prajwala, an organisation based in Hyderabad with a mission to end sex slavery. Krishnan and Prajwala — which has rescued, rehabilitated, or served more than 23,000 survivors of sex trafficking — have asked the NHRC to withdraw the advisory.

In an anguished letter, Krishnan has said that in her experience of more than 25 years, there has not been a single instance where a woman has voluntarily gone into prostitution. “It is an absolute failure on our part to not provide viable options to women to engage in productive work,” she wrote. “Our law — which is the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act — lays down that the institution of prostitution is illegal. Sex is either a consensual engagement between two adults or it is rape. Commercial sex, if engaged through any institutional process is illegal and liable for prosecution. Hence Government of India never recognised sex work.”

Krishnan urged the NHRC to withdraw Section III (B) of the ‘Women at Work’ advisory which she said had practically asked the government to legalise sex work by giving it a legitimate registration status. Krishan posted her letter on Twitter, stating, “There is a point in your life when you have to a clear position publicly. It is now.” 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

What has been the reaction to Krishnan’s letter?

Over 11,000 signatories from 25 states have protested against Krishnan’s letter to the NHRC. Over 255 networks and organisations including the Forum against Oppression of Women, Gamana Mahila Samuha, Point Of View, MASUM, Stree Mukti Sanghatana, Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sanghatana, Queer Feminist LBT Collective, Telangana Hijra Transgender Samiti, Naz Foundation, and others have written to the NHRC.

“We affirm the autonomy and dignity of women, be they sex workers or victims of sexual violence. No organisation or individual can arrogate to themselves the authority to decide their destinies,” the letter to the NHRC stated.

“Krishnan’s letter 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. It is unfortunate that she is unable to see that her myopic and moralistic objection to the recommendation in the advisory that sex workers be recognised as informal workers and registered in order that they are able to get worker benefits is violative of women’s rights at several levels,” Madhu Bhushan of Gamana Mahila Samuha, Bengaluru, said.

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