Sex workers and women’s rights activists danced, celebrated and distributed sweet treats following a Supreme Court order which provides them with protections against police brutality.
The order, passed on May 19, issued a set of guidelines aimed to ensure that the country’s 900,000 sex workers are not mistreated by police.
“When it is clear that the sex worker is an adult and is participating with consent, the police must refrain from interfering or taking any criminal action,” said the court statement. It maintains that sex workers should not be “arrested or penalised or harassed or victimised” during police raids on brothels.
“It need not be again said that notwithstanding the profession, every individual in this country has a right to a dignified life under… the constitution,” the court observed. The order reaffirms existing legislation that views sex work as a profession in India subject to certain restrictions.
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 targetted discrimination often at the hands of police. In the past, sex workers have reported being detained by police under “public nuisance” or “obscene conduct” laws that have been manipulated against them.
As a result most do not even turn to police when crimes are committed against them. Many turn to community organizations for support instead. According to a 2016 report by non-profit Swasti Health Resource Centre, 81 percent of sex workers out of a surveyed population of 109,366 were registered with such organizations.
In its order, the Supreme Court acknowledged “brutal and violent” law enforcement attitudes against workers in the industry.
The Supreme Court order states: “Police should treat all sex workers with dignity and should not abuse them, both verbally and physically, subject them to violence or coerce them into any sexual activity.” It also ensures that workers can file police complaints without their professions being used against them.
The order also states that children of sex workers should not be separated from their parents on the grounds of their profession. It also says that workers who have experienced sexual violence should be provided with immediate supportive facilities and care.
It called on law enforcement agencies to be more sensitive towards sex workers, and on legal authorities to educate sex workers on their legal rights.
“[It will] save thousands of sex workers from unnecessary harassment and intimidation from the police,” Biplab Mukherjee, an adviser for the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective representing sex workers, told the New York Times.
However, some are concerned about how police will react to the order.
“This order directly contradicts the police’s interests especially when it comes to cases where they might have an opportunity to extort sex workers for money,” Bharti Dey, former president of the All India Network of Sex Workers told VICE World News.
The interim order is to remain in place until new legislation related to sex work is introduced by the government. It is based on a previous one from 2011, under which a panel was set up to provide recommendations on preventing human trafficking, rehabilitation of non-voluntary sex workers, and conditions for voluntary sex workers to live with dignity. Although the panel submitted its recommendations in 2012, legislation based on its recommendations has yet to be passed. Due to the delay in legislation, the Supreme Court released an interim order to fill the need to protect sex workers until a law is passed.
“We are hoping that this order will reduce the police harassment against sex workers,” Dey who was also a member of the panel said.
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