The ordinance on sexual violence against women has fallen foul with organisations working with sex workers across the country who fear that the harassment and persecution faced by women in sex work even of their own volition will only increase because of the way the Justice Vermacommission conflates trafficking and those who consent to sex work.
“It was never the mandate of the Verma commission to say or do anything about trafficking. First they went and extended their brief. To make it worse, the newly worded Section 370 of the VermaCommission, which has been accepted in totality by the ordinance, will only enhance criminalisation of people in sex work since it does not differentiate between ‘coercive prostitution’ and prostitution; nor does it talk about the “exploitation of prostitution,” said MeenaSeshu of National Network of Sex Workers.
According to her, the Verma Commission has wrongly interpreted the internationally recognised and existing explanation of exploitation (under the UN Protocol, 2000), which states, “Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation.” If the section is accepted, it would go against the commitment made by India which is a signatory to the Protocol and has ratified the UN Protocol in 2011.
“The inclusion of voluntary and consenting sex workers into the definition of exploitation puts back the struggle waged by sex worker communities across India to ensure dignity. This interpretation contradicts the Supreme Court which has upheld the rights of women in sex work observing that Article 21 grants them a right to live with dignity,” she added.
While agreeing that safeguards to prevent harassment and persecution need to be in place, others like Priti Patkar of Prerana, which has been working with communities in the red light areas ofMumbai since 1986, feel there was some scope for hope too. “If the government starts talking in paradigms of exploitation then the logical corollary to that will be the right to protection and rehabilitation. While enforcing the ordinance the government should work out the modalities for that too.”