Effects Of Covid-19 Lockdown On Sex Workers In India: An Empirical Study

Aranya Chatterjee & Varun Wahane

29 May 2021 10:23 AM GMT

  • Effects Of Covid-19 Lockdown On Sex Workers In India: An Empirical Study

    "If nobody wants to sell sex, it is a crime to force anyone to do so. But when men or women do want to sell their bodies, they should have that full right without encountering punishment or discrimination. If the client behaves decently, the relationship between the sex buyer and the sex seller must be considered a purely private transaction." -Nils Johan Ringdal in Love For...

    "If nobody wants to sell sex, it is a crime to force anyone to do so. But when men or women do want to sell their bodies, they should have that full right without encountering punishment or discrimination. If the client behaves decently, the relationship between the sex buyer and the sex seller must be considered a purely private transaction." -Nils Johan Ringdal in Love For Sale

    The above lines are from the book "Love for Sale" which describes the commercialization of sex workers. With time, relationships and views over certain vocations have changed. It can't be said that sex-mongering has been normalized in India but a debate has begun. In the past, sex-mongering in India was the worst thing to happen, it was not even discussed or viewed as an occupation for humans. However, it has recently come to the surface as a lifestyle of people out of choice or under pressure. Still, it is viewed as practice behind the curtains.

    Law does not view sex-mongering on moral grounds but as a practical occupation. Indian law recognizes the vulnerability and helplessness of sex workers and gives them all the fundamental rights under the constitution.

    In India, it has been regarded as one of the oldest professions, they are also referred to as Devadasi and Tawaif, the oldest traces go back to 4000 years in ancient Babylon. In today's world globally the commercial sex-working industry is worth 186$ billion and more than 20 million sex workers are in India, most sex workers enter the industry under the age of 18, mostly forcefully.

    Indian sex workers have been exploited and abused by society because of religious and moral beliefs. Under Indian societal norms, sex is only accepted between married couples as a moral act, which is not to be discussed openly. There is a taboo around sex in the land of Kamasutra.

    According to an anarchist political philosopher Emma Goldman "To the moralist prostitution does not consist so much in fact that the women sell her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock"

    Sex-workers in India have struggled for recognition as labor or worker under the labor law for years. Being unrecognized as workers under labor welfare legislation has denied them many rights and protections. The struggle between societal and legal rights of sex workers has been neglected for years. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 lockdown has hit them catastrophically, the effects of lockdown on the sex workers of India are explained in this article.

    Legal Status

    In India, the only legislation for governing sex workers is the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (IPTA) also known as the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA), which prohibits sex workers from soliciting customers in public space but allows them to practice and trade in private.

    Recently, the Bombay High Court while dealing with a case of prostitution, where the women in their 20s were picked up by the police and charged under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, held that adult women have all fundamental rights and to choose their occupation. It emphasized that there is no law that prohibits adult women from becoming sex workers. However, commercial sex-mongering like running a brothel and seducing in public places is punishable by law. Similarly, any kind of abuse or torture is punishable. Accordingly, the women sex workers above the age of majority were set free by the Bombay High Court. This is one of the leading judgments that professes that working as a sex worker is not a criminal offense in India.

    Sex workers do not get any rights under the labor law but get the right to be rescued from the sex-working industry and the right to rehabilitation if the sex worker demands to have a normal life. All the other rights are protected for sex workers as normal citizens under the citizen under Art. 21 of the Indian Constitution.

    There are many cases of underage girls being victims of human trafficking in brothels, these victims are raped and abused. The NHRC has asked the West Bengal government to submit a report over policies and measures are taken by the government against the sex trade especially in Sonagachi (Asia's biggest red light area in India).

    The state government was, in 2011, asked to prepare policies that were directed by the Supreme Court in the case of Budhadev Karmaskar vs State Of West Bengal. The judgment held that the sex workers should be rescued and rehabilitated from the brothels, and be trained with skills that can provide decent earning to have a regular life. It is the responsibility of the central and state governments to create policies that can provide technical/vocational training to sex workers. However, both state and central governments have failed to provide any incentives and execute any policy for their benevolence.

    Legitimacy of Kamathipura And Sonagachi

    Kamathipura and Sonagachi in India are some of the biggest red light areas in the world. Kamathipura is located in Mumbai and Sonagachi is in Kolkata, India's most urbanized areas. Many women of different age groups are brought here as sex workers. Some sex workers come from Nepal and neighboring countries of India, they are migrants or victims of trafficking. Slowly, these women are trapped in the business of sex-mongering because of economic needs and a lack of labor skills to survive. These sex workers can't escape because of fear of societal acceptance, lack of skills, no other source of income, and are trapped without any choices left.

    The law against commercial sex-working and red-light areas have several loopholes due to which areas like Kamathiipura and Sonaganchi function smoothly. According to PITA "pimping, organizing brothels, and forceful sex work of teenage girls amounts to prostitution" whereas, these red-light areas operate as independent houses of sex workers who are willingly engaged in this profession. In India, sex-mongering is not advertised, nor do the red-light areas promote themselves as brothels. Therefore, since sex-mongering in the private domain cannot be objected to by law, as it is a private space of adults with mutual consent, it continues to remain a thriving business.

    The Police Atrocities

    A special police office SPO is appointed by the state government to investigate any offense under PITA, similarly, the central government appoints trafficking police officers for the same. An SPO has special powers to investigate any offense under the PITA or relating to 'prostitution' and 'trafficking'. A police officer has the power to investigate without any order or warrant from a Magistrate, to not cause any delay in the process of investigation which would destroy the evidence. However, it is mentioned that a search has to be done by the SPO under reasonable grounds under Sec.15 (1). However, it is the discretion of the SPO officer to decide what are reasonable grounds for investigation. This has created fear of sudden raids among sex workers.

    Recent Cases of Police Brutality on Sex-Workers: The Legal Conundrum

    Recently, in Karnataka, sex workers were brutally attacked by police officers and made to give a fine without receiving any authentic receipts in return. Sex workers were dragged to police stations and beaten. They were also threatened to be charged with false offenses like selling narcotics and illegal drugs. There have been several incidents that do not have any reasonable allegations against the sex workers by the police to investigate and act violently. There has been a rise in violence against women sex workers on the streets by the police. The social vulnerability of the sex workers is being exploited by police officers extensively for many years in account of the investigation.

    The Court while decoding the powers of SPO in the case of the State Of Haryana And Ors vs Ch. Bhajan Lal And Ors, in the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946 stated that under Sec.5(a) the investigation is done to collect evidence and any irregularity or illegality in the course of collection of evidence can be considered as the legality of the trial and competent court of the offense so investigated.

    In the case of Bai Radha vs State Of Gujarat the court while analyzing Section 15 of PITA said that there is a special safeguard by the legislature to the nature of the premises that are to be investigated and searched within the privacy of a citizen especially with respect to females. However, such views of the court are not considered by police while investigating the sex workers. Therefore, many women sex workers complain about not being considered as women just because of their societally undignified profession.

    During the second wave of COVID-19, many people have been victims of police brutality and violence. These victims belong to marginalized groups such as homeless people, migrant workers, and informal workers, daily wage earners, sex workers, domestic workers, etc., all part of the informal sector. Because of the rise of such atrocities by the police. Civil society organizations and Activists wrote a letter to police commissioners in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) to resolve and help the marginalized groups in the time of the pandemic. The police did sympathize with the words in response to the activist however, the concern for implementing active cooperation with the marginalized groups by the police has been neglected.

    These brutal acts by the police against the vulnerable communities in the pandemic are violations of human rights. As police are for the security and protection of the citizens, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) defines that citizens have the right to life, liberty, and security under Art.3 however, these acts of police atrocities are of abuse and violence on unreasonable grounds. This is a violation of human rights under UDHR Art.5 which states that no person shall be punished, tortured, or treated cruelly. Similarly, no one shall be subject to unreasonable arbitrary arrest as per Art 9.of UDHR.

    The Central Government shall order all state governments to do a special investigation by the government authorized committee to take trials for such brutality on such people and the committed shall be given powers by the state government to conduct trials of such police officers who are accused of police brutality. In any condition, if any police officer is guilty of any such offense wilfully shall be punished under Sec 29 of Police Act 1861.

    How The Lockdown Affected Sex-Workers

    There are at least 10 million women who are commercial sex workers in India. Sonagachi has 12,000 female sex workers. At the start of the lockdown in 2020 very few women were able to go back to their native homes. According to the secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective group of sex workers in Kolkata 7,000 women were stuck in lockdown with no income and without any help. Before COVID-19 lockdown Sonagachi witnessed at least 15,000 to 20,000 clients regularly.

    Due to the lack of substitute skills or any other substitute job, sex workers have suffered unimaginably, many cannot afford to fulfill basic livelihood needs. 92% percent of the labor population of India is in the informal sector, which includes sex-mongering.

    Sex workers depend on their regular customers for their livelihood. Many of them do not view sex work as their primary job because of the irregularity of income. Therefore, they also have to depend on jobs as domestic workers, construction workers, or daily wage-earners. A 2014 study found that over 50% of women who sold sex had also worked as domestic workers. Many sex workers switched from domestic work to sex work at their discretion voluntarily, because they could earn more money. For example, domestic work paid Rs. 500-1000 per month, while sex work paid Rs. 3000-5000. However, transgenders do not have such voluntary discretion. They have been pushed into sex work because of societal ostracization and the need for survival. Both have one thing in common- the lack of skill set to earn a livelihood.

    An Empirical Observation

    Many studies suggest that there must be a strict shutdown in red-light areas and brothels because they are one of the factors responsible for spreading the COVID-19 virus. However, it is unclear how this would help in lowering the spread of the virus. A study of the Journal of International AIDS Society (JIAS) observed that the majority of sex workers work through homes or on streets across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra. In the study survey of Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services, out of 5301 sex workers only 24% of respondents had ever worked in a brothel.

    There is a shift of brothel-based sex workers to other platforms, the research of Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that the population of brothel-based sex workers in Kamathipura, one of the biggest red light areas in India has fallen from almost 50,000 in 1992 to about 2000 in 2010 and only 500-1000 in 2016. This shows that sex workers have shifted from brothels to other platforms like private houses, online internet services, and private places.

    Therefore, closing down brothels will not have any significant effect on the spreading of the virus. In the pandemic, as the informal sector is disturbed and domestic works are only allowed in an emergency it has become extremely difficult for sex-workers to survive.

    The Approach Of The Courts

    Observing the severe economic condition of sex workers in the first wave of COVID-19 the Court had given a sympathetic approach to the sex workers in the pandemic. In an appeal by The Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee for support of sex workers in the pandemic, in the period of the first wave. In the judgment of the case, Justice Chandrachud stated that the apex court is aware of the socio-economic impact of a lockdown, specifically on the marginalized communities. He further observed that the government will have to impose a lockdown because there could be a second wave of COVID-19.

    The Supreme Court also observed that the Center government should provide dry ration to all sex workers, identified by the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) and district legal authorities. Without identifying documents like ration cards. The three-judge bench consisting of Justice L. Nageswara Rao said that the sex workers are in severe conditions of survival, an urgent need of the central government to do without waiting for any directions by the apex court.

    However, the central government has failed in managing the situation of the second wave of COVID-19, even after warnings by the apex court in the mid of 2020. The government has still not produced any data on the conditions of sex workers in the second wave and any help by state received to them. The administration has failed to protect the fundamental rights of citizens in the pandemic. Unfortunately, a third wave is expected, so the government still has time to prepare for the next crisis.

    Views are personal.

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