Reena calls a small unventilated room her home and workplace. It has a small bed and a table fan. Like most sex workers in India, Reena belongs to the marginalized Dalit community. Her caste and her profession make her vulnerable to discrimination and abuse, especially from police.
But a recent judgement by India’s Supreme Court wants to change that. The court declared sex work a legal profession with guaranteed protection to workers, specifically from police high-handedness and violence.
This judgment should have been hailed as a step forward for sex workers’ rights. But most Dalit sex workers that VICE World News spoke to are wary.
“What will I get with this order? Nothing,” Reena told VICE World News from her home in a small town in West Bengal state called Sheoraphuli. She and other sex workers interviewed for this story requested pseudonyms for their safety. Many sex workers like Reena have spent years paying hefty bribes to police officers every month for protection. “I don't know if the police raids will stop, or if we will get the same treatment by the police when we go to file a complaint,” she said.
Two days after Reena spoke to VICE World News, Sheoraphuli’s red light area was raided by police in the middle of the night, during which they allegedly harassed and assaulted a client. When a group of sex workers went to the police station to complain, they were dismissed and asked to bring photos and video evidence of the assault to register a case.
Kiran Deshmukh, president of the National Network of Sex Workers, emphasized that the judgment attempts to shield sex workers from harassment and criminalisation. And because of their sheer number, it also attempts to shield marginalized castes. “Sex workers come from all castes, but of course, the majority are Dalit and [indigenous] Adivasi women.”
The court judgement maintains that sex workers should not be “arrested or penalised or harassed or victimised” during police raids on brothels. Sex work is legal in India, but running brothels, pimping and soliticiting are prohibited. Despite this, vague laws have exposed sex workers to longstanding marginalization, violence and targeted discrimination. Sex workers have reported being detained by police under “public nuisance” or “obscene conduct” laws that have been weaponized against them.
Deshmukh believes the judgement itself isn’t enough. “Sensitisation can not be achieved by merely passing laws or judgments. This is the first step,” she said. “The next should be active education from the bottom up. We are saying we want it to be completely decriminalised. Sex work is not a crime and we are not criminals.”
Activists familiar with sex work and caste struggles are unconvinced that the ruling will have any real impact.
“We welcome this judgement, it is a very laudable verdict. However, the chances of it achieving what it intends are slim, because it hasn’t even reached the people it is [meant] for,” Sintu Bagui, a Kolkata-based gender justice activist, told VICE World News.
Bagui is an unusual success story. She’s the child of a sex worker, is a Bahujan person – legally classified as an “Other Backward Class” in India – and the first transwoman to become a judge in a local People’s Court or Lok Adalat in Sheoraphuli. She says none of India’s earlier laws protecting minorities, like trangender people, actually worked. “Whether you take 377, or Trans Act, none of these judgments and laws have been able to seep down and make changes in the lives of people who truly need the safety nets of these laws and judgments.”
There is a palpable tension in India between the progressive anti-caste movement and the progessive sex workers rights movement. The anti-caste movement has historically taken a stand opposing sex work, arguing that sex work has casteist connotations and a history of exploiting oppressed Dalit and indigenous Adivasi women.
“Sex work is not a choice here in India. Dalit people have been doing these jobs for centuries because the Indian Brahminical [upper caste Hindus] society never allowed Dalits to do anything else,” Riya Singh, co-founder of Dalit Women Fight, told VICE World News.
Singh was referring to the devadasi, a specific practice within the 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system that exploits young girls from marginalised castes. The devadasis are also known as “sex workers of god.” Under the practice, young girls are devoted to a temple and its services, and priests and dominant caste men of the temple use them as sex slaves.
In 2007, Anti-Slavery International published a report which revealed that 93 percent of Devadasis are Dalits, and 7 percent are Adivasis.
“Any work that designates a particular caste into it or consists of only marginalised caste folks in its workforce, is not a choice-based profession. For as long as Dalit women comprise the largest category in this profession, I will never call it a choice,” said Riya.
This is true for Reena. “This was the only work I could find,” she said.
Reena entered the profession 15 years ago, after moving out and leaving her abusive husband. She says police used to harass sex workers in her area almost twice a day, raiding their homes and workplaces. She thinks maybe, with the Supreme Court ruling, the raids will stop, but she isn’t sure.
In Sonagachi, Kolkata, the largest red-light area of India, home to over 11,000 sex workers, most know about the Supreme Court judgment, but they too aren’t very hopeful about it.
“We will only know what the judgement means in the coming days. Sex workers have been granted protections, but we have built a certain safety for ourselves by fighting for decades. We are fearing that the police might try to harass our clients under controversial laws like the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act. Indirectly, it is a threat to us.”
Pushpa, a Dalit sex worker, started working in Sonagachi 10 years ago. She worries she would lose clients if police raids continued, and she would no longer be able to make ends meet. “People sell commodities, services, and I sell my body, on my terms. What is wrong with that?” she told VICE World News.
Pushpa believes that high-class sex workers, who earn significantly more than her, may benefit more from this judgment. “They have more social capital: knowledge of their rights, knowledge of the law, and just education in general. They have been given an added layer of protection from criminalisation, while Dalit sex workers will continue to be harassed by the police,” she said.
When VICE World News asked Reena if she thinks that this judgement will benefit her in any way, she laughed and said, “I don’t know and I don’t understand much. The only thing I know is that I have to work to feed myself.”
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