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The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) has raised concerns over the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation), 2018, Bill. The proposed law aims to criminalise all adult sex work.

It doesn’t make any clear distinction between the victims of sexual exploitation or human trafficking and persons who voluntarily opt to provide sex to make a living. It has been observed that sex workers had not wanted to be ‘rescued’.

Legal Status of Prostitution in India

  • Voluntary adult sex work is not illegal in India under certain circumstances, such as when a woman provides the service in her own home without any solicitation.
  • The primary law on trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1986.
  • It punishes offences including procuring a person for the purpose of prostitution, living on the earnings of prostitution of another person and keeping or using a brothel.

Core of the Issue

  • Enforcement agencies often conflate trafficking with voluntary sex work and abuse the provisions of the law to evict sex workers from their houses.
  • It is this experience that has stoked fears among sex workers about the new Bill, which is aimed at curbing “physical and other forms of trafficking”.
  • They are urging lawmakers to revisit the language used in the Bill and to ensure that the legislation provides built-in safeguards.
  • Their key demand is that the Bill should explicitly exclude adult persons voluntarily engaged in sex work.
  • Certain offences in the Bill were “clearly directed” at sex workers and that these definitions needed to be reworded to remove all ambiguity.

Must seek consent

  • Sex workers also demand that the consent of a person rescued from trafficking should be a mandatory requirement before a decision is taken to send him or her to a rehabilitation centre.
  • Clause 4 in Section 17 of the Bill, allows the dismissal of a victim’s application for release if the Magistrate is of the opinion that such application has not been made voluntarily.
  • With such provisions the current bill will become a tool in the hands of law enforcement agencies to victimize and harass sex workers.

Ensuring dignity to sex workers

  • The Supreme Court had appointed a Panel for recommendations on rehabilitation of sex workers.
  • The report recommended community-based rehabilitation through a multi-stakeholder board comprising representatives from the sex worker’s community, a doctor, a lawyer and officials of the State government.
  • This body would examine educational, training and employability needs of women and help them access these. The panel recommended a scheme to provide interest free loans to enable a woman to set up a business as well.
  • The panel also proposed a slew of measures to ensure dignity of life for those who want to remain in sex work such as providing them a ration card, right to education for their children as well as crèches and day-time and night-time care centres.
  • The panel recommended that even when victims of trafficking were being rescued it was important to let them choose whether they wanted to reunite with their families or preferred community-based rehabilitation.

What is expected from the Law?

  • The recommendations submitted to the Central government through the Supreme Court don’t find any mention in the proposed law.
  • Activists said that while the law focuses a lot on surveillance and policing, there is very little in terms of the welfare of a survivor of trafficking apart from the provision of her rehabilitation in a shelter, and these are also weak.
  • The Bill also doesn’t provide a mechanism to ensure monitoring and accountability of shelter homes or revocation of licences or punishment for those running the centres in case of non-compliance.

Way Forward: Imbibing best practices

Partnership between sex workers and anti-human trafficking units to root out exploitative practices is essential. This is a model that activists cite as success stories such as in the country’s largest red-light district of Shonagachi in West Bengal. Here, a self-regulatory body of sex workers is operating since 2001 helps in tracking entry of minors and in identifying traffickers. This model has also been emulated in Sangli in Maharashtra where the anti-human trafficking unit has collaborated with workers to rescue minors and prevent trafficking.

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