Indian Sex Workers Critical of new Anti-Trafficking Bill

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

Sex workers’ organisations have raised concerns about a new anti-trafficking law in India, called the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill. Women and Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi introduced the bill in India on the 31st of May.

Despite requests to be included in the process, the bill was not drafted with sex workers or sex worker-led organisations. Mukta, Uttara Karnataka Mahila Okkuta and members of National Network of Sex Workers, India, told media “we continue to be kept out of drafting processes, though it is well known that are victims of badly drafted anti-trafficking laws and policies and NGOs who want to rescue us. We call on the Minister to include us in all consultation."

At least 35 women from the National Network of Sex Workers recently attended a three-day consultation in Bangalore on the draft Bill. The draft Bill was translated into Marathi, Kannada and Malayalam, with Telugu and Tamil translation offered during the consultation. The women who attended gave extensive recommendations, which will be passed on to the Ministry.

The draft bill aims to prohibit trafficking of persons while ensuring that victims receive protection and rehabilitation. However, there has been criticism about the lack of definitions in the Bill. Activists are worried that the Bill will be used to further marginalise people who are perceived as victims of human trafficking, or that human trafficking will be conflated with sex work.

Human Rights Lawyer, Kaushik Gupta has described how “…an individual from a financially backward environment who is interested in moving to a different state for the purpose of a better livelihood might be restricted from migrating by local village panchayats in the name of ‘prevention and protection’. Due to the lack of definite understanding of the terminology, it will be impossible to hold the State accountable regarding the steps they propose to take against trafficking.”

“There is no definition of ‘trafficking’ anywhere in the bill,” said Smarajit Jana, advisor to the DMSC. “The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act defines trafficking in one way, while Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code has a different definition. And the bill is completely silent about this.”

Sex workers and sex worker-led organisations have expressed concerns about the focus of the draft Bill. The Bill identifies how the crime of trafficking should be dealt with. The Bill describes the formation of committees, special courts, and rehabilitation services. However, the Bill does not define human trafficking or describe what the penalties will be if a person is found guilty.

Bharathi, General Secretary of Karnataka Sex Workers Union and member of National Network of Sex Workers made statements to the media, explaining, “no one should be sent to the Corrective Homes forcibly. The consent of the victim should be taken. The corrective homes should provide counseling services. The corrective homes should keep major and minors separately."

Sex worker activists are also concerned about the final section of the draft Bill, which states that the new Act would override all other laws on the subject. Aarthi Pai, a lawyer with Sangram asked, “where does the draft bill stand vis-a-vis the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act? It is not clear, and it does not clarify what happens in the event of a clash in the provisions of the two laws.”

The Women and Child Development ministry is accepting suggestions and objections to the Bill from the public up until the 30th of June, and various social workers and non-profits are already preparing to send in their objections.