The invisibilisation of women’s work in prostitution is juxtaposed with their hyper-visibilisation as subjects of societal gaze that reduces them to stereotypes. Babli (36), a sex worker working in the ghetto of Kamathipura, Mumbai, says, “we are seen as evil, our work is dirty, we are not fit to be married and have families, even our shadow is polluting and we are expected to live and die here.” Babli’s story highlights how the individuality of women in sex work becomes secondary to their profession. The societal stigma around it has played a pivotal role in demeaning their work and stigmatising them.
The state, instead of addressing their precarity, often is seen exacerbating it. At the forefront of its institutions is the police which closely interacts with sex workers, albeit with prejudice and extortion. Further, media which could positively intervene in breaking the societal stigma is seen as reducing these sex workers into subjects for sensationalisation.
A sex worker’s day begins around noon when she dresses up in her best attire before she can take to the streets looking for her customers. Behind her dressy appearance is the dejection that underpins her life. Taking to sex work is usually not a choice but a compulsion of poverty and despair. For 32-year-old Nayana, deserted by her husband, it’s the need to feed her children, educate and get them married that brought her to Kamathipura. 26-year-old Chaya’s story might be different, but her reasons stem from her hapless state that she articulates as ‘majboori'(helplessness). The reasons for working change over the years so does her own perception of her work.
For both Nayana and Chaya, their work as sex workers has been rewarding and ameliorative. Sex workers in Kamathipura look at their work as their dhandha (business), one that has not only helped them take care of their families but, over the years, has made them feel as workers who work from their bodies. Chaya unapologetically calls her dhandha as her bhagwan(God) and feels that in her line of work, she has the ultimate authority to choose when she wants to work.
Nayana feels that it is due to her work that, in her family, her voice is now heard. She is now seen as being independent and capable of earning and supporting her family. Nayana and Chaya are one of the many sex workers who came to Kamathipura as ‘majboori‘(helplessness) but have found ‘azadi’(freedom) in its brothels. Yet what seems unattainable to these women is the samman(respect) accorded to other work forms.
Despite being seen by them as their naukri(occupation), rozi roti(livelihood) without zabardasti(force), their work is seen as being ganda(dirty) and as such is accorded no samman(respect).
Why is the Court’s ruling a significant step?
Indian courts have played a seminal role in positively intervening in the lives of sex workers. The recent Supreme Court ruling (May 2022) that, “sex workers, who are otherwise despised and stigmatised by society, must be treated with full respect for their dignity and humanity, as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution” is critical for it addresses the prevalent attitudes and calls for framing of policies that accords to sex workers the respect and dignity denied to them.
This is a reiteration of the apex court’s ruling in Budhadev Karmaskar (2011), wherein it recognised that sex workers are equally entitled to a ‘life of dignity’; the 2019 verdict of the Calcutta High Court, which took cognisance of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956 (ITPA) and stated that no sex worker could be tried as an accused unless her being a co-conspirator is substantially proved; the 2020 judgement of the Bombay High Court ordering the immediate release of three women sex workers from a state-run correctional facility thereby upholding their right to choose their profession.
The current ruling goes a step further by recognising prostitution as a profession for the first time. The verdict not only acknowledges their labour but also significantly adds to its previous directions like providing dry rations without an identity card and issuing ration cards and voter cards to all sex workers. By declaring ‘voluntary’ sex work as not being illegal, it has upheld the sex workers’ right to dignity and equal protection before the law.
The judgement also makes a critical intervention by calling for sensitisation of both the police and the media. To Kusum (27), the fear of the police is deeper since they come with authority. Arti (29) resonates with this when she talks about a police officer who has bad intentions and hence troubles her. Women are equally apprehensive of the media, which takes their pictures without consent and uses them to reiterate taboos, mass consumption, and sensationalisation. This has been a long-standing concern for women, who feel that their privacy is breached and their identities are in threat.
In this context, the judgment goes a long way in ensuring that the harassment and victimisation of sex workers are put to an end. Additionally, it makes space for two important provisions: providing legal aid to sex workers who do not have access to lawyers and providing medical assistance in case of sexual assaults, both of which can augment the agency of sex workers.
The apex court’s judgement is a significant step in providing basic dignity to sex workers and one that can act as immunity against the arbitrariness of the police, media and society. These guidelines are an important step in helping the state to put in place an effective law that can bring sex workers at par with other citizens. For the actualisation of the apex court’s judgment, the state has to be willing to engage with those in sex work to understand their concerns, formulate necessary laws and policies and implement them effectively. Till then, the directives of the apex court are a welcome step.
Khushboo currently works as an Assistant Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. She received her PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she brought conceptual frameworks drawn from the feminist critiques of the Social Contract theory to understand surrogacy as a form of feminised labour and its changing legal contexts. Through her ethnographic research with sex workers, surrogate women, and domestic workers, she has delved into issues of waged employment in vagrant forms of labour, the quest for agency, and the efficacy of laws. Before TISS, she worked as Research Scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Her most recent publications are Empowerment and subjugation: Re-conceiving commercial surrogacy as work-labour in India and, Decoding surrogacy: Mothering in the context of money and market. She can be found on Twitter.
Featured image source: Odisha Bytes