“Kyun, shaadi karna hai kya (Why? Do you want to get married)?”
This is Kusum’s standard response to customers who come in asking for a sex worker of a particular height, build, or complexion. Taking a dig at fussy customers and the follies of Indian matrimony, Madhu had a hall full of students, journalists, and sex workers giggling for a whole minute, during the day-long consultation meeting held by the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), in New Delhi, earlier this month.
In an effort to bridge the gap between sex workers’ groups and civil society, the consultation revealed multiple sides to sex work that one doesn’t normally get to see. Tripti Tandon of the Lawyers Collective, in an earlier conversation with YKA about legal intervention, had this to say: “The mandate of the law is to treat sex workers as victims,” which has created a narrative of tragedy, and a saviour-style approach that discounts the perspectives and activism of sex workers groups.
Building intersectionalities with all social movements was the focal point of this consultation. AINSW’s National Coordinator Amit Kumar told YKA that whether it is a campaign about the Right to Information, or pension schemes- the needs of sex workers must be made part of the discussions and their outcomes. He adds that this will begin to erode the myth that sex work is immoral or illegitimate work.
This consultation reiterates the long standing effort by sex workers to change the discourse around their work- distinguishing their right to be provide sex as a service similar to dentistry or accountancy from being forced into flesh trade. The meeting highlighted the need to recognise sex work as work to be able to demand workers’ rights.
Minimum wage regulation was another key aspect that was discussed at the meeting. Kusum highlighted price differences in the informal sector, she drew an analogy between their work and that of chhole bhature vendors, where one vendor sells a plate for Rs 20 while another might price it at Rs 50. She added that, those who operate out of their own home may charge customers a little less but those who answer to a brothel owner might earn even lesser. She spoke about customers who will pay not in cash, but will pay in products like sarees or cosmetics!
Concerns around monetary risks involved where customers offer huge sums of money for unprotected or unsafe sex were raised. Given these risks, Kusum discussed the need to create safer work environments. Currently, many sex workers who work independently are at risk of physical or sexual assault as there is no defined place of work. She added, that it ranges from trucks to dhabas to the undersides of bridges to fields as determined by the whims of their customers. The only reason any of this happens is because sex work is not recognised as work that demands dignity.
Changing the policy framework around sex work, AINSW feels, is crucial to addressing these challenges. However, they feel excluded by the recently passed Anti-Trafficking Bill, which aims to prohibit the buying and selling of persons for labour, sexual exploitation, bearing children, and drug testing.
According to AINSW National Coordinator Amit Kumar, there was no effort from the State to consult them, despite them being prominent stakeholders. Since 2015, AINSW has organised regional consultations in Hyderabad, Gujarat, Delhi, Kolkata and other cities, to get the community involved in the national-level decision-making process. They reached out to union ministers like Maneka Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor last year, but to no avail.
AINSW feels that, despite this set back, the community has evolved to become a significant support system for sex workers. The community has had success in a pilot project run in seven areas of North-West Delhi. Collaborating with Societal Empowerment through Voluntary Association (SEVA), and organisations like Savera and Aarohan when it comes to raising awareness about sex workers’ rights to social security measures like pension plans, and legal documentation.
Additionally, the Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DLSA) runs capacity building programmes to empower sex workers to organise camps, learn about coordination and mobilisation. DLSA has also worked with community based organisations and district magistrates to make around 500 Aadhar cards for sex workers and their children to address the problem of lack of documentation for sex workers.
While the movement for sex workers’ rights has grown significantly since the AINSW first began holding regional consultations in 2015. However, Kumar feels the bill passed in the Lok Sabha on July 26, 2018 has thrown a spanner in the works by giving more power to the police instead of the community itself. The way forward, despite this setback, he says, lies in the law. The bill must be tabled in the Rajya Sabha, and a deeper discussion is needed before a Standing Committee.