INDIA: The Supreme Court of India has ordered police forces to treat sex workers with dignity and refrain from verbally or physically abusing them.
A bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, B R Gavai, and A S Bopanna issued a flurry of directives, saying that the constitutional protection afforded to all citizens in the country must be kept in mind by authorities charged with enforcing the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956.
Supreme Court’s decision
“Any sex worker who is a victim of sexual assault should be provided with all facilities available to a survivor of sexual assault, including immediate medical assistance, in accordance with the law,” it said.
The petition highlighted the plight of sex workers as a result of COVID-19, and sought redress for more than nine lakh women and transgender sex workers across India.
“It has been noticed that the attitude of the police to sex workers is often brutal and violent. It is as if they are a class whose rights are not recognized. The police and other law enforcement agencies should be sensitised to the rights of sex workers who also enjoy all basic human rights and other rights guaranteed in the Constitution to all citizens. 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,” the bench said.
The court further stated that the Press Council of India should be urged to develop adequate guidelines to ensure that the identity of sex workers is not revealed to the media.
During arrests, raids, and rescue operations, whether as victims or accused, and not to publish or transmit any images that would result in such disclosure.
“Besides, the newly introduced Section 354C, IPC, which makes voyeurism a criminal offence, should be strictly enforced against electronic media, in order to prohibit telecasting photos of sex workers with their clients in the garb of capturing the rescue operation,” it said.
It also ordered state governments to conduct a survey of shelter houses so that instances of adult women detained against their will can be reviewed and processed quickly for release.
Measures taken by sex workers for their health and safety (e.g., the use of condoms) shall not be regarded as crimes or seen as evidence of a crime being committed.
Workshops should be held by the Central Government and State Governments, through the National Legal Services Authority, State Legal Services Authority, and District Legal Services Authority, to educate sex workers about their rights in relation to the legality of sex work, police rights and obligations, and what is permissible/prohibited under the law.
“Sex workers can also be informed how they can get access to the judicial system to enforce their rights and prevent unnecessary harassment at the hands of traffickers or police,” the bench said.
The rulings were made by the Supreme Court based on the suggestions of a panel formed to assist sex workers in regaining their footing.
The top court was also advised that the Indian government has reservations about the notion that sex workers have equal protection under the law and that police should refrain from meddling or initiating criminal action.
According to Article 21 of the Constitution, every person in the country has the right to a dignified existence.
Plight of sex workers in India
Life was difficult for sex workers before the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has only gotten harsher since then. Lack of healthcare access is a major issue.
Limited access to healthcare is a problem that sex workers encounter on a regular basis. Commercial sex workers are a vulnerable group of people who face a variety of health issues.
Access to healthcare is already challenging for sex workers because of the stigma associated with their work. Many doctors refuse to handle or check sex workers even during normal hours because they believe they will contract sexually transmitted illnesses or other ailments from them.
The consequences are devastating. HIV affects about 1.6 percent of India’s female sex workers. In Maharashtra, it is estimated to be at 7.4%.
Assistance from the government for sex workers is almost non-existent.
The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, which has been granted Rs 1.7 lakh crore to benefit the poor, would theoretically allow women to receive Rs 500 per month for three months.
However, this necessitates the creation of an account, which most sex workers lack.
Sex workers’ vulnerability extends to basic requirements such as food, water, sanitation, housing, and healthcare.
Over fifty individuals share the same public restroom, which frequently lacks running water. They can’t maintain social distance and hygiene.
Sex workers are active participants in the economy, even if they are invisible and marginalised.
The most disadvantaged members of society are often overlooked and neglected.
It is critical to provide help to sex workers and other vulnerable groups.
Their essential needs must be heard, responded to, and addressed by the government.
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