Sex workers in India continue resistance against draconian anti-trafficking bill

The trafficking bill has few provisions to help trafficking victims, and focuses on a flawed notion of rehabilitation and punitive measures, making it easy to target sex workers, transgender people and migrant laborers

February 10, 2019 by Surangya
A number of protests have been held across the country demanding the withdrawal of the anti-trafficking bill. Photo: Rachana Mudraboyina

Representatives of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) and All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), along with other community-based organizations working with sex workers and transgender people, addressed a press conference in India’s capital city, New Delhi, on February 6. They came together to talk about the issue of forced rehabilitation and the many problematic features in the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection, and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018.

This bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, in July last year. It is pending in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, and might be introduced in the current session.

Sex work in India is practically illegal. Those involved in this profession are rarely ever seen as workers, but instead as either victims or criminals. The authority to decide who is a victim and who is a criminal is vested with the police or some district or state authority, and the decision is taken rather arbitrarily. The primary issue that three of the panelists of the press conference, Ayesha, Kusum, and Devi, all of whom are sex workers, wanted to highlight was that in a hurry to “rescue” the “trafficked victims”, the police and other authorities never care to distinguish between who is trafficked and who is a voluntary sex worker.

This uniform treatment towards all sex workers, most of whom are women or transgender persons, has led to the creation of a racket where these “rescued” individuals are sent to rehabilitation homes for periods ranging from one month to sometimes three years. In many of these homes, run mostly by NGOs or trusts with state funding, the detainees are stripped of all rights, and have to live in conditions that many of them have described as being “worse than a prison.”

Rehabilitation homes

“After they took me there, for three months they showed me what hell was. I had no phone to call, and I wasn’t allowed to meet anyone. My eldest daughter was not doing well. She had a problem with her ribs; she could only eat if someone fed her. Despite the circumstances, they didn’t even let me talk to my children. Also, they made me work for them. We were made to clean their bathrooms. We were made to wash their clothes. We were made to do tailoring. We were made to weed the garden. She grows vegetables inside. It’s very huge. No one will hear you even if you scream. We picked vegetables there, loaded the vans, and she sells that stuff outside. She tells us that you won’t be able to escape except as a dead body.”

This is a shelter home resident’s testimony given to Devi, who is the general secretary of NNSW. She collected the testimonies of 20 women who had been forcefully rehabilitated and locked up in shelter homes. Most of these women are fearful for their lives due to the threats they receive from the shelter home owners. They are not willing to come forward publicly as a result.

The deplorable conditions in shelter homes have been exposed before, but due to the heavy clout the owners of such homes have with state authorities, little is done to change conditions inside. Together with the police, rehabilitation homes run this organized racket by carrying out rescue operations by raiding brothels and hotels and forcing the sex workers into shelter homes later.

The “raid-rescue-rehabilitation” model has been a failure in the country in all these years, and has also been proven unsuccessful outside. There are enough studies that show that a huge percentage of sex workers who have been rehabilitated in this manner have later gone back to the same profession. Apart from that, in the time these workers are forced to spend in rehabilitation homes, their families suffer extreme distress and they also incur huge amounts of debt in the process of paying off lawyers and rehab home officials for their release.

“I am a voluntary sex worker. I have 3 children. Once I was caught in a raid. Then they went to my home village. They told my mom and all the villagers about me. My parents lost their reputation as well. Shelter home people made sure that I won’t be able to go to my village and show my face to anyone. They came to my home and she said, “Give me money.” … They threatened that they will lock my house and throw my kids on the street. So my husband went and got a Rs. 300,000 loan from someone. They record addresses and say that she completes home reports [about the victims’ homes]. Why do these people go to inmates’ houses? For money.

Another thing is that if you hire a lawyer in the court, you can’t have the lawyer of your choice. We can only use the lawyer they recommend. He might take Rs. 300,000-400,000, but we have to hire him. We gave him up to Rs. 300,000. So it has come to a total of Rs. 600,000. Now if I have to repay this Rs. 600,000 debt, I need to go back to that same profession, right? You are saying that I have turned good [been rehabilitated]; but what good are you doing? I stayed for a year inside. In that year, did I find a good job, or give food to my kids, or earn any money for all the work I did for a year? At least give me Rs. 1000 for a month. How much would that come to? Rs. 12,000. Give that money to me and counsel me to set up a shop or something. That would be good. But instead, you take us.”

One of the most well-known rehabilitation homes in the country is run by Prajwala, an NGO founded by Sunitha Krishnan. Krishnan is an internationally-known social activist and her rescue efforts have received many accolades and global funding.

However, a report published in the Guardian in November last year by Joshua Carroll exposed similar stories of forceful rehabilitation, exploitation, and violence in the facility run by Krishnan. Five of the seven detainees interviewed by Carroll reported either being subjected to violence or witnessing it.

This report has now been taken down from Guardian’s website. It is not clear why it has been done so. The contents of the story can still be read here.

There is clearly nothing in the current approach that is working. But instead of changing it, the Indian government is further strengthening the focus on rehabilitation in the new anti-trafficking bill.

Criminalization and punitive measures.

This bill essentially criminalizes the issue and resorts to punitive measures instead of taking a more rational approach of addressing the socio-economic crises that push individuals into sex work. While the minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, has said that the bill is not meant for voluntary sex workers, there is no clause to enforce this exception. The threat that voluntary sex workers face of being conflated with trafficking victims is very much present.

The approach being pushed in the bill also doesn’t help the case of trafficking victims as the conditions in rehab homes are often worse than what they are facing outside, and they are not being provided with alternative sources of livelihood or helped with integration into society.

Even if they are being taught certain skills for work that could help them leave sex work, the public spectacle that is created around the rescue operations and informing of families and neighbors, closes off whatever opportunities that might have opened up otherwise. There is too much stigma attached to the profession of a sex worker for them to explore other options and be accepted easily.

This bill, much like the currently existing legislation (Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, or ITPA), views the profession through a strictly moral lens, and in the process, makes sex workers appear as helpless victims or immoral individuals. The only options it leaves open for them is to either return to their parents or families, or shelter homes.

“Women choose to do sex work due to various reasons, one of them being poverty. We are marginalized and the state marginalizes us further with their apathy. Instead of helping us, the state is further persecuting us by working in connivance with anti-trafficking NGO mafia and not community based organizations,” Devi said during the press conference.

Another reason why this bill fails to meet the needs of those it is trying to help is that it has not taken into consideration the views of the stakeholders. The sex workers, and the other communities it will affect, have not been consulted in the drafting of the bill.

While sex work is one of the key areas the bill is focusing on, its passage will also have severe adverse effects on the transgender community and migrant laborers. Its callous phrasing and overreaching provisions will do more harm than good. The bill is draconian in nature, and according to experts, the presumption of guilt, lack of right of anticipatory bail, stringent minimum sentences, put it on par with anti-terror laws. It is quite evidently targeting the poorest sections of the country.

Resistance

The different networks of sex workers running nationally or in smaller areas have been doing extensive work to protect the rights of sex workers which this bill threatens to undo. They have been organizing protests against this bill and are prepared to fight a legal battle along with the other affected groups if it is passed.

They are demanding that the bill be referred to a special committee, in which they also have representation, before being passed in the Rajya Sabha. They want that instead of criminalizing them and their work, the government take steps to give them space and acceptance in society. Training in skills without any assured employment is pointless for them.

“I am 40 years old. They want to rehabilitate me and teach me how to stitch clothes. I can’t even put a thread into a needle, my eyes are weak. And who will buy clothes from a sex worker? Is the state thinking about this? No, they just want us to disappear. We are here. And we will resist. We have, for centuries,” said Kusum.

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