There has been much debate as to if sex should be legalised. Many countries have already legalised the trade. Demands are there even in India for legalising the trade so that the sex workers are allowed to work with dignity. However, the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a collective of the women in sex work from western India believes that if legalisation of the sex work happens to come in, the workers will be under direct control of the Government, which will decide how many of them to be granted license to work in a particular region. Consequently, the woman having license to work in a certain area will not be allowed to pursue her job in other places. Periodic health check up will be mandatory. “Health is a basic right, but there should not be jabardasti. Legalisation will make HIV test compulsory thereby pushing the positive workers into isolation. Women with Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) will be stopped for six months,” says Natasha (name changed), an active member of VAMP, herself a sex worker from Sangli District, Maharashtra, an HIV positive and still with a sound health to continue with her job. VAMP supports the Amnesty International’s recommendation of 11 August 2015 to fully decriminalise sex work. Instead of legalisation, which will bring so much restriction on the sex workers’ mobility, VAMP stresses on decriminalisation, which will help address their abusive conditions, instituted by State and non-State bodies. It will also make the Government services as well as identity documents easily available to these women, which have so far been denied owing to the criminal tag of their business.
VAMP has taken an explicitly rights-based approach since its inception in 1996. It evolved to root-out violence, oppression and economic exploitation of women in sex work. It maintains the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s declaration of 1998 that calls for economic recognition of the sex industry by extending labour rights and benefits to sex workers. VAMP works closely with SANGRAM - a health and human rights NGO, set up by feminist activist Meena Saraswati Seshu. In the course of her journey of work for the sex workers’ rights, Meena has often been asked, whether she would recommend her daughter to become a sex worker. She reacts by saying that this question is never asked about a domestic help or a rag picker, when these are also works that people might not have chosen but eventually had to be in due to some compulsion. For her, the people who are not in sex work are unwilling to perceive it as a work.
When human trafficking is an offense, a woman in the sex work cannot be called a criminal. She does not violate anybody’s right or anything, but is herself violated. Natasha stresses the need for drawing a clear demarcation line between those who really need help to come out of the trade and those who are voluntarily into it. Natasha and her associates, who prefer to be referred as sex workers rather than prostitutes, are very particular about the age and consent of the new recruits. When a new girl enters a gali, she would definitely be enquired about these things so as to avoid child labour and forced recruitment. Natasha prescribes that sex trafficking can be stopped only by working with the sex workers. Only they can identify the genuine sufferers of trafficking. She affirms that sex work is not exploitation, but exploitation does exist inside the work. They face multiple exploitations from police, local gundas, media and health service providers. Natasha narrated a sad story about one of her co-workers who was indescribably mistreated by a doctor at a Government hospital during her pregnancy check up only because of being a sex worker. Stigmatisation, which is an offshoot of standards set by so called morality, is the larger backdrop preventing these women from accessing their rights. The State is feared, rather than seen as a protector of rights. Apart from the physical assault, usual name-calling, demands for sexual favours or a fine are routine for them. Choosing not to protest their arrest, they find it easier to pay fines for a release. “We must work hard to create our space and change the society’s perspective towards us,” says Natasha, now a promising voice for her community.
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