In a breakthrough decision, sex workers in India have now been listed by the National Human Rights Commission Commission's (NHRC) advisory on COVID-19 under the "Women at Work" section, recognising them as "informal workers", and thereby enabling access to government welfare schemes.
The advisory came as the pandemic has hit millions of people in the informal sector. Sex workers' livelihoods came to an abrupt end. They survived months without work along with a mounting burden of rent, food, and overdue loans. While the government announced relief schemes for the poor, people in the sex industry remained outside their ambit.
Activists working for the welfare of sex workers have hailed the move but raised questions over the ambiguity of the decision.
Kavita Krishnan a feminist activist and secretary for the All-India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA) told Sputnik that the NHRC's recognition of sex workers as "women at work" is the first step towards de-stigmatising this industry.
"Recognising women involved in sex work as informal workers is a welcome step because it focuses attention on their rights as workers, rather than patriarchal shaming in the name of sex".
Krishnan, however, underscored that the mere inclusion of sex workers among the informal sector isn't enough to protect their rights. Both the federal and state governments need to respect the NHRC directive and act accordingly to ensure that sex workers get documents, access to rations, and other welfare measures.
India has over 657,800 sex workers, according to a 2016 survey by UNAids, however, the actual number is said to be between 1.25 million and 3 million by activists.
Sex work is governed in India under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Though not illegal according to the Act, soliciting sex and brothels are.
Tejasvi Sevekari from the Pune-based NGO Saheli, who made the submissions to the committee, called it a major milestone in the struggle of sex workers.
"It will help sex workers by giving them a voice. It will be a major tool for advocacy for the decriminalisation of sex workers who are fighting each day for their right to live with dignity without stigma and violence".
Though she agreed there's still a long way to go, she stated that the recognition will boost sex workers' mental health as these women have dealt with a lot of psychological trauma.
Counterproductive If Not Implemented
India has thousands of illegal brothels that function under the noses of police and officials.
These illegal establishments, brothels in urban cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, are located in jam-packed red light areas. Hundreds of women live in cage-like rooms in these brothels with no windows, proper access to running water and electricity.
A sex worker, named Manimeghalai from Chennai told Sputnik, she is on the verge of begging on the streets due to pandemic as they have not had a single client in months. She stated that the NHRC move could be life-changing for them if they get support from the government.
"For the last 8-9 months, we have nothing to do. We are badly affected by COVID-19. During these months, we have accumulated a huge debt. We have to pay rent, I have two small children, their school fee, food, etc," she said adding, "This can turn our life if we get ration cards and other documents to get financial support."
Talking to Sputnik, A.J.Hariharan, Founder Secretary of Indian Community Welfare Organisation, welcomed the move stating that its the need of the hour but it would be counter-productive if state governments do not act in the same direction as NHRC.
"The sex workers community is in desperate need for some help. It is the first step towards the development of the people, who are mostly uneducated, live in slums and brothels. They lack social and economic opportunities," said Hariharan.
He added that success of 90 percent of such initiatives depends on the implementation and commitment towards the community.