On 19th May India’s Supreme Court announced a ruling expanding the rights of sex workers and defining sex work as a profession. “It need not be gainsaid that notwithstanding the profession, every individual in this country has a right to a dignified life under Article 21 of the Constitution,” the court observed.
The court also ruled that sex workers are entitled to equal protection under the law. “Criminal law must apply equally in all cases, on the basis of ‘age’ and ‘consent’. When it is clear that the sex worker is an adult and is participating with consent, the police must refrain from interfering or taking any criminal action,” a three-judge Bench led by Justice L. Nageswara Rao directed in an order which was passed after invoking special powers under Article 142 of the Constitution.
In addition, the court ruled that Police should not abuse sex workers, the media should not publish pictures of raid and rescue operations and sex workers who have been detained in ‘protective homes’ against their will must be released.
A statement released by the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) shared the reaction of Bharti Dey, Ex Secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the oldest network of sex workers in India. Bharti Dey served on the Supreme Court-appointed panel which examined legal problems faced by sex workers and suggested measures to address them. Bharti recognised the ruling as a historic win after a 12 year battle. “The Court allows our sex workers to live with dignity as equal citizens of the country”, she added.
The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) declared the ruling as “a victory for the sex workers rights movement”. They added that they “look forward to the positive changes this ruling will bring in the movement towards the rights of sex workers in India, and our neighbouring nations. This is a step towards decriminalising sex work and workers and in adequately recognising their labour as informal workers in the country.”
Although sex workers in India are celebrating this ruling as a victory, activists have also acknowledged that guaranteeing their hard-won rights will be an ongoing battle. In an article for the Washington Post, Meena Saraswathi Seshu, general secretary of SANGRAM, explained why.
“The backlash is already beginning…The police are going to start looking for any kinds of arguments not to follow the Supreme Court.”
The ruling does, however, give sex worker rights activists something new to call on when they are the targets of police harassment and violence.
“When the police do not follow the [Supreme Court] order, we have language and space that we did not have before. That’s our biggest weapon to fight against police violence.”
The Supreme Court is set to meet again in July to hear a response from the Indian government.