Zareena was in her room at a brothel in Mumbai’s sprawling red-light district when police officers raided, she recalled, recently, looking for a woman believed to have been the victim of sex trafficking.
When they took the woman, Zareena said she followed them to the police station because she was afraid the woman would be injured in custody. But, she said, once she got there, she herself was detained, despite not committing a crime. She spent that night in 2019, like so many others over the years, in confinement.
An order issued this month by India’s highest court may help reduce such experiences.
While prostitution is legal in India, those who practice it have long faced marginalization, violence and intimidation by the police. A panel set up in 2011 to examine these issues has made a series of recommendations over the past six years, none of which have been enshrined in law.
Instead, India’s Supreme Court has steadily removed barriers that deny prostitutes their constitutional rights, including, most recently, this month’s injunction aimed at police enforcement of sex crime laws.
In that order, the court identified two categories: consenting adults who work voluntarily in prostitution; and minors, victims of human trafficking and people who want to leave the industry.
For consenting adults, the court said, the police must refrain from arrests and other forms of harassment. The Indian state governments were instructed to develop rehabilitation programs for those in the second category.
“It has been noted that the attitude of the police towards sex workers is often brutal and violent,” the court wrote.
“It’s as if they are a class whose rights are not recognized,” the court added. “Police and other law enforcement agencies need to be made aware of the rights of sex workers who also enjoy all basic human rights and other rights guaranteed to all citizens in the constitution. The police must treat all sex workers with dignity.”
The order will “save thousands of sex workers from unnecessary police harassment and intimidation,” said Biplab Mukherjee, an adviser to the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective representing industrial workers based in the Indian city of Kolkata, India. city of Kolkata. capital of the state of West Bengal.
The court also clarified that prostitutes should not be separated from their children.
India’s Supreme Court intervenes when judges find that the government has failed to address a constitutional problem through legislation. For example, in the past the court has drawn up rules to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, which became the basis of a law years later.
India is one of the few countries, including Canada and New Zealand, to have legal protection for prostitutes. While performing sexual acts for money is legal in itself, running a brothel and other related activities such as asking and pimping is not.
Rights groups estimate that India has about 900,000 prostitutes. Most, they say, have been pushed into work by crushing poverty and sometimes forced by traffickers. Others have chosen it over other informal employment, researchers found.
Prostitutes are particularly vulnerable to violence, researchers say, in part because of the perception that they are criminals. In addition, police are ignoring “complaints of family and partner violence” regarding such workers and instead offer “advice to women about quitting sex work and settling household affairs amicably,” a report said. from the Center for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalization, a policy research group.
The Supreme Court order addresses something the United Nations and other institutions have emphasized: Decriminalizing sex work alone is not enough to improve conditions for industry workers. Governments must remove other barriers to ensure equal treatment.
The latest order, issued on May 19, comes about six months after the Supreme Court demanded benefits for sex workers, saying that fundamental rights were guaranteed to all Indians, regardless of the type of work. That December ruling ordered the government to provide prostitutes with voter ID and food ration cards and to relax verification requirements to do so.
The December decision came after a panel of judges ordered federal and state governments to make food rations available to prostitutes during the pandemic, without requiring them to show ID.
Archana Pathak Dave, one of the states’ attorneys there to receive instructions from the Supreme Court, said the move was crucial during the pandemic. “Especially in Covid times, these sex workers actually starved to death because their work had stopped,” she said.
“The court is filling the gap until the time the legislation comes, so it’s a very welcome step,” Ms Pathak Dave said of the latest injunction.
Zareena, 55, who asked to use only her first name because of the stigma attached to her profession, said she was smuggled into the sex industry at age 12 but chose to continue the work as an adult to to support her four children.
She said she had been arrested dozens of times and regularly harassed by authorities.
When she heard about the court’s directive on Friday, she said she hoped it would free prostitutes from the fear of being dragged to police stations, where they were often harassed for bribes.
“It’s a great relief and a good thing,” she said. “Who wants to be held in a police station to earn a living?”