Did The Anti-Trafficking Bill Ignore The Rights Of India’s Sex Workers?

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.

“Sex Work Is 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 For Sex Work

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!

Safety Concerns

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.

By lanes of Budge Budge, in Kolkata.

 

A Community That Relies On Itself

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.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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