This is an excerpt from the sixth edition of the India Exclusion Report, a collaborative effort involving institutions and individuals working with a shared notion of social and economic equity, justice and rights. The report seeks to inform public opinion around exclusion and the role of the state and to influence policy-making towards creating a more inclusive, equitable and just society. The annual publication is anchored by the Centre for Equity Studies and edited by its director, Harsh Mander.

Covid-19 brought the entire community of sex workers to a complete halt overnight. It was sudden and it was chaotic and for women in sex work, it was dreadful. When a country of 1.3 billion people is forced to lock themselves wherever they are, the most marginalised, the most deprived and invisible population are best forgotten and left to their fate.

This is not new as sex workers in India continue to live in hiding through various kinds and levels of exclusion.

A recent primary survey conducted among 600 cis-female sex workers by the All India Network of Sex Workers for the India Exclusion Report in North Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata and first-person narratives of women in sex work recorded between January and April 2019 in several locations found that sex workers have rarely been offered inclusion in the social, political and economic spheres.

They have had to assert inclusion through different strategies, sometimes covert. Data shows that sex workers in North Delhi have employed the strategy of maintaining anonymity to improve their access to state welfare entitlements and public spaces. The high degree of inclusion that sex workers in Kolkata say they have achieved can be attributed to the strength and support they derive from the sex workers’ collectives that they have developed.

Transgender sex workers in Hyderabad report the highest levels of exclusion, which can be attributed to multiple axes of stigma – sex work being just one of them.

Across sites, they have seized different opportunities in the areas of HIV prevention, gender equality and human rights to work collectively for both inclusion and recognition of their work and life experiences. The survey further offers a rich insight into the everyday life of the sex workers. Some of the major findings from the survey are explored below.

Entry into sex work was a result of choice and a result of exclusion: While the majority of women entered sex work because of poverty, poor socio-economic conditions, violence and exploitation in marriage and other areas, we also found that a considerable number of women – around 68% – came to sex work on their own. Also these women, who either came on their own or due to their circumstances, did so after venturing into the informal labor markets – working as domestic helpers, beauty parlour workers, wage labourers, petty vendors, construction workers, for example, which were also the sites of exploitation for them.

Sex work thrives on the institution of marriage: In both Delhi and Kolkata, we found that the majority of women doing sex work are currently married. We found women who came to sex work after being married for years in the hope of earning a decent livelihood to take care of their family and children.

Sex work and consumption of newly found spaces: Traditional sites of sex work have been transformed a great deal, with urbanisation and the expansion of market economy. Now, women fix appointments with their clients on phone and conduct business in a rented places, hotel, lodges or makeshift brothels located in middle-class colonies rather than in established red-light areas.

Interface between sex work and informal labour markets: Women, men and transgender persons have their presence in both informal labour markets and the market of sex.

The legal-sexual puritanism which deems sexual transactions outside of marriage as unworthy, amoral or even criminal is at the heart of the concern that a sex worker can only have been forced or tricked into the occupation; and if not – if she has indeed chosen sex work by her own volition, as her means of livelihood – then that she may have not chosen correctly or that she must regret her choice in hindsight. Notions of morality and decency clash for primacy over justiciable rights.

Children of sex workers perform a dance drama during the Sex Workers' Freedom Festival in Kolkata in 2012. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Interventions for and by sex workers

To overcome the deep seated structural and social inequalities various interventions were being brought to action by sex workers. Ironically, interventions for and by sex workers began with the National AIDS programme, which started off viewing sex workers as the vector of the disease and evolved to seeing sex workers as equal partners in the fight against AIDS. Based on this evidence, two broad types of interventions were carried out.

Health interventions, which included condom programming; behavioural interventions; HIV testing and counselling; HIV treatment and care; pre-exposure prophylaxis; prevention and management of viral Hepatitis, TB and mental health conditions; and sexual and reproductive health interventions.

Structural interventions, which included campaigns for supportive legislation, policy and funding’ addressing stigma and discrimination; community empowerment; and addressing violence. This work has been taken up by the two very prominent network of sex workers in India: the All India Network of Sex Workers and National Network of Sex Workers which over years have been addressing the issues if exclusion and dignity of sex workers in India. Other interventions included:

Self-Regulatory Board: In the year 2000, sex worker-led institution called the Self-Regulatory Board came into being which mandated itself with the task of screening new entrants into the red-light area, with a view to reducing all kinds of violence, including trafficking in sex work.

Sex workers financial cooperative: Sex workers have always found it difficult to open a bank account due to lack of proper documentation and the stigma of being a sex worker.To address these multiple vulnerabilities and achieve financial stability and economic security, a few sex workers at Kolkata got together to register the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society in 1995. Apart from being able to save their money safely, and access cheap credit, sex workers received a passbook, which served as their first proof of residential address, thus helping them to access citizenship and entitlement documents such as voter IDs and ration cards.

Recommendations to the state

Sex workers, over the years, have been raising some very basic demands and submitting their recommendations through networks, NGOs – both independently and collectively – so that they are treated with dignity and are given all rights and privileges.

The foremost demand or the recommendations that the sex workers are making is to accept their work as “work” and “labour” within the larger informal market networks in the country and and they be ensured minimum wages for the work they do, along with access to all quality health and social benefits. They also recommend the removal of the criminalised environment that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act continues to inflict on them.

Sex workers demand that the state provide them with safe working environments and ask for a supportive legal framework that opposes regulation of any sort that labels them as criminals. They ask for occupational health and safety and the right to participate in the process of developing workplace health and safety standards. They also demand for equal protection under laws against rape and other form of violence.

The recommendations are many, but underlying all demands and recommendation is an effort to ensure the right to equal citizenship, eliminating all forms of discrimination from sex workers’ lives. Hence, it is necessary that the state adopts an inclusive approach to ensure the rights of the sex workers and involve each sex worker – male, female and transgender – in all decision-making processes.

Sutapa Majumdar is a Post Doctoral Research Associate (affiliate) at King’s College London.
Mona Mishra is an independent consultant and have been working in the development sector over two decades.
Misbah Rashid is a Senior Researcher in Centre for Equity Studies.
Akhila Sivadas is the founder member and the executive director of Centre for Advocacy and Research, New Delhi.

Read the other excerpts from the India Exclusion Report for 2019-’20 here.