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Do Commercial Sex Workers Have Basic Human Rights In India?

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By Harish Iyer:

I recently attended an event organized by Operation Black Dot that organizes events that help the youth engage in a dialogue with their candidates. This was my first interface with Priya Dutt, where I was not a panellist but an audience with the youth of Bandra in Mumbai. I posed a question about her personal views on Section 377 and her understanding and views on the introduction Gender and Sexuality education in educational institutions. I was amazed at the response. She openly said it was no one’s business to interfere on what consenting adults indulge in. She also supported the fact that Sex and Sexuality education is the need of the hour and it needs to be introduced. She went a step further to say that our attitude needs to change, and even commercial sex work should be legalized in her opinion. It was positively shocking to hear someone speak about an issue so tabooed, so openly. I was indeed impressed by her, but I would also like to say without any intention of belittling her noble thoughts that I was also upset that despite 10 years of tenure, the congress hasn’t been able to introduce mandatory sex and sexuality education.

sex workers

Commercial sex workers are a part of the same society we live in. Yet they get no voting rights, no right to dignity, they are ostracized by the society – even though many of the members of the so called “decent society” are the ones who queue up as “customers”.

We keep complaining about illegal human trafficking and sex slavery in this “industry”. If we don’t legalize them and issue licenses, how are we to penetrate into this industry and keep a tab on illegal trafficking? How can we keep a check on their health? How are we to keep a tab on HIV?

We continue to criminalize these sex workers who get rounded up again and again…how many times have you heard of the customers being rounded up? You all want to get rid of prostitution? Tell me you holier than thou people, how many of you all would give jobs to the women who were waiting at the traffic signal for their customers? You all want to be divine in your blessings and views, but it takes real courage to stand up with them and accept them and their choice of work, provided they do it with 100% consent.

I am sure you want to get the society free of sex workers, and want them to be thrown into some isolated island that you could call – “rehab”. You want them to do real jobs — like what? Is ‘begging’ a ‘real’ job? You continue to treat them in dastardly ways and call them the bastards that plague our society. (Yes, pinch yourself, I am speaking about you). How many of you will give commercial sex worker, a job? Or let’s say, many of you who have a bleeding heart that has a lot of concern for the women who work in sex trade and wish to offer them alternate jobs. But, what would those jobs be? Would you rather have them and their daughters and sons give your daughters and sons competition in their class? Or would you prefer them to come home two times a day and wash utensils? Ask yourself!

Well, if you are so concerned, give them their space, their voice, their right as equals — not as a “cause” you support, but as human beings who deserve the equal share of the sun.

Yes I know that sometimes truth is so hard that it hurts, I am glad if it did. If you believe that rights of commercial sex workers are human rights and the right to trade their body is their own and no one else’s, let’s begin by legalizing commercial sex work. If we wish to live in a free and equal India, we have to ensure that they have their equal rights too.

Harish IyerHarish Iyer, an Equal Rights Activist, is recognised internationally for his innovative and quirky campaigns for a wide range of causes from animal rights to human rights.  In 2013, the British daily Guardian listed as one of the 100 most influential LGBT persons in the world. Just in his early 30s, Iyer has 2 internationally acclaimed award winning films and a book inspired by his life. 

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  1. Amitra Sudan Chakrabortty Founder MANAB A Human Rights Organization

    As a student of Law and being a Human Rights Defender, we need to educate the sex professionals first to claim their human rights and everyone has a right to claim and enjoy the same. The need of the hour is to ensure basic hygiene in the areas where they work and the education from primary to higher for the children as well as for the sex professionals, if they are interested. We should not depend on the government completely and we should work as a member of civil society for ensuring their welfare. Legalization alone will not ameliorate the suffering of those sex professionals.

  2. jeeka krishna

    i can proudly say that i want to legalize sex work in India and i have no problems in helping those who want to change their profession because i don’t want anyone to do this without their own 100% consent. i really don’t understand why supreme court or the government has the right to decide someone’s sexuality ? Two consenting adults ..End of story.. Why does someone else intervenes between them ?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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