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Sex Workers Are Humans, But What About Their Human Rights?


Prostitution has a long ancient history in India. Back in the centuries, girls denoted as Devadasi were often used in ceremonies to entertain the men of the ruling class. In the rituals, they were married to Gods or the local religious deities and then given away to the presiding community to use them as prostitutes. These girls were prohibited from entering into any form of real marriage.

A lot of women indulge in this profession for several heartbreaking reasons, including prevalent social customs, marriage accompanied with desertion, greed and need, psychological desires, and to top of them all, rape and abandonment by family and society. It has remained even when times and eras have changed perhaps because human sexual demands neither decline nor are completely satisfied.

By lanes of Budge Budge, in Kolkata.

In India, prostitution is not illegal per se, but acts involving solicitation of such services, pandering, keeping brothels and pimping are criminal. According to the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women & Girls Act, 1956, sex workers are allowed to carry on their business in private. It does not criminalize prostitution as such but bans third-party facilitation.

According to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1986, sex workers can be arrested for seducing their clients. Prostitutes who make their arrangements using phones are not allowed to make their phone numbers public. Anyone indulging in any such activity with a person below 18 years of age shall be imprisoned for seven years or more. Prostitution in hotels is also banned.

Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits trafficking in every form, including commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. According to the Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act, 1986, prostitution means sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purposes. Sex trafficking has gained awareness and recognition as a human rights violation. Sex trafficking involves the sale of humans for sex. UN Protocol 2000 prevents, suppresses and punishes trafficking of persons, especially women and children.

Prostitution is perhaps the oldest profession all over the world, but it is likely the most hated one. Hated in a sense that people who visit them actually enjoy it, but in society, they pretend otherwise. It is often perceived that prostitutes do what they do out of their own free will and choice and they are often looked down upon, leaving a question to their face, “Why do they not do something else?” But we have to understand that a majority of them are in this profession because of their compulsion. Most of them are compelled and forced to be in this profession rather than it being their choice.

In the case of Budhadev Karmaska vs the State of West Bengal, the apex court, while directing the central and state governments to frame social security and rehabilitation schemes for prostitutes, held that prostitutes also deserved their right to dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution since they are, most importantly, human beings and their issues need to be addressed. It stated that sex workers were human beings too, and no one had a right to assault or murder them. The judgment also highlighted the plight of sex workers and empathized that these women were compelled to indulge in prostitution, not for pleasure but because of abject poverty.

It was stated in Raj Bahadur vs Legal Remembrancer that:

“Traffic in human beings means selling and buying men and women like goods and includes immoral traffic in women and children for immoral or other purposes.”

In the case of Sushil vs the State of UP, even if a prostitute lodges a report of rape and her evidence inspires confidence, there is no rule of law that states that the statement of the prostitutes cannot be believed. They have the fundamental right and are at her liberty to permit a person for sexual intercourse.

Problems With Law Enforcement:

  • Lack of Priority
  • Ineffective
  • Improper Investigation
  • Victimization of the victims: NHRC study shows that around 85 to 90% of the arrested persons are women, and most of them are victims of trafficking.


  • Preventive Programs
  • Community Policing
  • Second generation prevention
  • Rehabilitation

As a society, this is the time for us to think. No doubt that the court says that they are also humans and they have their human rights, but the court cannot reach every woman who is in this profession. Some questions remain unanswered, and we need to find answers if we really want to protect humans and human rights.

Forget about those who are in this profession; is it appropriate and moral to indulge in sexual activity by giving money? Is it appropriate to buy a girl or woman’s time for just to fulfill your desire and satisfaction? Is it possible to protect human rights or think about human rights for the person who offers this service? Is it possible for children of prostitutes to think about any other profession and live a life of their choice? Is it possible to respect the consent of prostitutes?

Can’t the government make rules to provide some other employment opportunities to those who are working in this profession?

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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