Our Current Approach to Sex Work: Flawed Laws, Flawed Policies, and Flawed Programs Will Not Right Our Wrongs


Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

Just two months back, I marched with hundreds of sex workers in India to demand justice for Anu Mokal. Anu, a sex worker, was picked up by the police at a bus stop one evening, charged with ‘soliciting’ customers at the bus stand, abused and beaten up. As a consequence, Anu, who was then four months pregnant, suffered a miscarriage.

With the support of a collective of sex workers, Anu filed a complaint against the policemen who assaulted her. But two months down the road, has her complaint progressed any further? No. Has the promised State inquiry into the incident taken place? Unlikely. If it has, the results have not been made known. Has Anu been given a fair hearing? Not that I know of. (Instead, while she was complaining, she was told that sex workers cannot be mothers). Have the policemen faced any action for assaulting a woman in a public place, an action that was witnessed by others? No.

Anu Mokal’s case is emblematic of the situation faced by the more than one million sex workers who live and work in India. On the one hand, they routinely face violence, including the violence of stigma. On the other, they are not able to rightfully claim their place in the sun as citizens, who deserve respect, dignity, justice, and rights – like any other citizen of our country. This is why the banner leading our march says:

“The violence of stigma we dare to survive
Of dignity we dare to dream.”

Freedom from abuse and violence is a human right that we will continue to fight for at every forum, including the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, which is on at Kolkata at the same time as the International AIDS Conference takes place in Washington DC. (Come to Kolkata and support us, you guys!) But for now, I want to go a little deeper into this whole thing and show how flawed national laws, HIV policies and programs contribute to reducing freedoms for sex workers and depriving them of their daily rights.

To begin with, sex work is itself seen as a moral blot by all sections of society – from opinion makers in the media to the forces of law and order. I see this as ‘moral criminalization’, a situation in which public morality ‘criminalizes’ sex workers, regardless of their legal status. But when laws, policies and programs reflect this kind of thinking, the situation gets much worse.

We still have:

  • Flawed laws. For example, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act of 1986 does not clearly distinguish adult sex work from trafficking. It reflects a world view in which sex work, trafficking and sexual violence are one and the same thing. This confused thinking results in a lack of justice for those who are trafficked and those who are not. Once the paradigm of trafficking stops dominating the legal framework, moral criminalization will stop and so will some of the violence against sex workers.
  • Flawed policies. On the one hand, policymakers acknowledge that it is effective to involve sex workers in peer-based HIV prevention programs – such programs show better results. On the other hand, policymakers do not acknowledge the structural factors that make sex workers vulnerable to HIV, including police violence and an absence of legal protection or rights. To quote from a 2002 Human Rights Watch, Epidemic of Abuse: Police Harassment of HIV/AIDS Outreach Workers in India“In practice, one branch of the government relies on the non-government sector to provide condoms and information to persons at high risk, while another branch of government – the law-enforcement establishment – abuses those who provide these services.” As Anu’s case shows, this tendency to give with one hand and take away with the other has not vanished in the decade since this report was published.
  • Flawed programs. Although we now have some HIV programs which centre on those in sex work and their health needs, we still have programs in which sex workers are seen as vectors of HIV and blamed for the HIV risks they face, programs which target sex workers not as human beings in themselves, but as ‘instruments’ to prevent HIV from spreading to their clients, and programs which reflect the thinking that immoral sex = sex workers = immoral disease.

Such laws, policies and programs increase the HIV risks that sex workers face, instead of decreasing them. They make sex workers powerless and more prone to taking higher risks, instead of empowering them to minimize these risks. So where do we go from here? We need to start seeing how HIV and human rights interact in the daily lives of sex workers. It’s not enough to give them condoms and information; we need to ensure they don’t routinely face violence – and to ensure they have access to justice if ever they do. We need to give them the right to lives free of violence. We need to take steps to reduce the stigma they dare to survive and give them the dignity of which they dare to dream.

I would have loved to share this message in Washington, DC at AIDS 2012 this year. But instead I will be in Kolkata, in solidarity with sex workers, who are determined not to let US immigration laws marginalize them even further.

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