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Does ‘Education For All’ Include Sex Workers And Their Children?

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

As a 4000-year-old profession, the sex trade in India still resides amidst judicial obscurity. The only governing law is the Suppression Of Immoral Traffic in Women’s and Girl’s Act (1956), amended as the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (PITA) (1986).

india sex work is work

Thus, two immediate observations that follow are:

  • The act has grown stale over time. Human Rights issues that were once pertinent in the ’80s have now undergone leaping changes with new, emerging crises demanding more innovative solutions and;
  • The stark legislative reluctance of the government towards female sex workers.

That said, this article aims to throw some light upon the ambiguity in the realm of education for female sex workers. Their access to education is confirmed under the general rubric of the Right to Education Act. In the opinion of the article, it is here that the conventional dilemma between equality and equity rises.

Given the discriminatory treatment meted out to the female sex workers in light of their occupational indignity, aren’t they qualified by the same virtue to be thus, identified as a group requiring special attention from the state concerning basic public services, importantly education and health? Sadly so far, there has been nothing but haunting silence.

A major distortion under PITA is that sex work is predominantly conceptualized through the lens of trafficking/exploitation, precluding an understanding of sex work as a legitimate form of labour and hence, the void in well-formulated labour rights for these women.

Consequently, feeble traces of state advocacy for the education of female sex workers are found in the imprecise scope of rehabilitative arrangements such as the National Action Plan 1998 or the Draft Policy on Rehabilitation and Combating Trafficking of Women and Children by the Government of NCT of Delhi.

Empty Policies

The National Action Plan 1998 arrange state-sponsored, protective homes for women under section 21 of PITA, where custodial care is ensured to its residents. Within this frame of custodial care, a faint mention of educational training is enclosed, albeit rested on the discretion of the NGOs running these centres.

Thus, the not-so-noble character of NGOs nowadays and their subsequent misappropriation of funds leave the sex workers in a limbo between the intermediaries and the state with no access to education, let alone quality education. The dilapidated rehabs and their greater emphasis on moral policing than the rescued sex workers’ empowerment ensure little learning. Apart from the elementary letter-reading abilities, nothing of advanced academic proficiency is imparted, thus questioning the plan’s success.

Similarly, in the Draft Policy on Rehabilitation and Combating Trafficking of Women and Children by the government of NCT of Delhi, one is likely to come across an interesting phrase under the education policies which is, ‘if the candidate is interested in pursuing her education, then she will be supported up to the class 12th as per her area of interest.’

In the opinion of this article, there’s a lack in the assertive tone one is likely to find in Article 21A, wherein it is the state’s responsibility to ensure credible education. Whereas in this scenario, much is left to the female sex workers.

Anybody with a sense of empathy and practicality will understand that the immediate drive for education is well absent within them. The psychological trauma they are coping against, and the lack of prior socialization inculcate the need for formal education. Therefore, this clause of ‘non-institutional care’ is a skillfully curated loophole, conveniently displacing intended funds into questionable oblivion.

Second, of the several suggestions, the economic support for education is the least in comparison to assistance in other expenditures. Therefore, I ask, quite keenly, why has the state intentionally checklist education on a tertiary level given its instrumental importance in primarily rehabilitating the women’s lives in the truest spirit?

Reality Check

Stinking with societal stigma, the vulnerable and neglected children of these female sex workers also suffer the trickling fate of poor education. Having to face ostracization in public schools, their drop-out rates are rising. Especially, female students are often harassed within the school premises hence defeating the purpose of a reformative attitude towards sex work in the first place.

Following India’s unique tradition of protective discrimination based on caste and race, it’s about time to extend this prerogative into the professional arena. Primarily because sex work too, at some level, is an ‘ascribed profession’ – it is either a situational compulsion or involuntary perpetration.

Since time immemorial, Indian sex workers are a marginalized community. Hence, adequately qualifying as a minority, a state-driven specialized effort is needed for their educational emancipation. The only spell to break this vicious cycle of inducting women into such a demeaning business is to have literate, well opinionated, equipped minds who stand their ground of refusal and go on to build their lives based upon intellectual and creative independence. Conversely, the government needs to shun its rusted notions of rectitude and stop capitalizing on the pandemic as an excuse for deferment in the introduction of real changes.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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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