Author: Ketaki Patil
II Year | Shri Navalmal Firodia Law College, Pune
COVID-19 has caused disproportionate harm to every sector of society. Governments all over the world have undertaken various major measures to curb the increasing rate of infection. In India, strict lockdowns were imposed as a precautionary measure. However, there were some serious consequences of this lockdown on various sectors of society. The ones affected the most were the marginalized communities. One of the worst-hit communities of the COVID-19 pandemic has to be the Sex worker’s community.
Sex workers are the people who provide sexual services or erotic performances for monetary benefits. According, to a survey by UNAids, in 2016, India had 6,57,800 sex workers. However, many believe the numbers to be much higher as many remain unidentified or unaccounted for.
Since they earn their living through work revolving around human touch and intimacy, thus, the demand has been significantly low resulting in a range of difficulties. Some of these difficulties are a shortage of nutritious diet, financial problems, inability to pay rent, lack of access to health care services, and mental health issues.
Sex Workers alien to COVID relief packages:
To cope with the pandemic, the finance minister announced an economic relief package on 26th March 2020 of 1.7 lakh crore rupees for the support of the marginalized communities that were majorly affected. However, sex workers were not the beneficiaries of this relief package. Specific relief was announced for economically marginalized women, including widows, but sex workers were not included in that too. They are often subjected to social exclusion from government-sponsored schemes or facilities concerning health, education, or any other relief packages. This pandemic brought the issue of these vulnerable people to the pedestal.
Sex workers under the law:
The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act of 1956 refers to and talks about sex workers. This law is highly regressive and is based on societal prejudices concerning sex work. It defines prostitution as sexual exploitation. It equates trafficking and prostitution and does not hold into account the “consent” of the sex workers to choose sex work as an occupation. While sex work is not illegal per se under Indian Laws, yet activities surrounding it are criminal in nature.
They face judicial apathy, and the system is cruel to them by treating them as criminals rather than victims. Due to this, they fear revealing their identity in public and they do not possess the documents needed to avail basic facilities, making it difficult for them to benefit from government schemes.
The lack of government support compounded by discrimination faced in the social system has taken away the liberty of sex workers making them the most vulnerable during these Covid times. The pandemic has been very tough for them as they have faced rampant human rights violations. They were denied basic medical assistance and human necessities due to the social stigma attached to them. There were prejudices that these communities would be responsible for spreading the virus. It did not just result in halting their whole business but also in denying them access to other utilities.
Human Rights, Supreme Court, and the Sex Workers:
In September 2020, the Supreme court of India responded to the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee (DMSC) to provide relief to sex workers in the form of dry rations, monetary assistance as well as masks, sanitisers and other essential requirement considering the COVID -19 pandemic without any requirement of documents or identity proofs. This verdict indeed sheds light upon the vulnerability of sex workers and the need for government to secure their basics especially, the right to life article (article 21) and equality before the law (article 14). However, the major question remains about the implementation of this judgement on the ground level. There is still no concrete data present which can explain the relief aid assigned to the sex workers.
The National Human Rights Commission issued an advisory titled ‘Human Rights Advisory on rights of Women Context of COVID-19’ on October 7th2020. It dealt with the protection of human rights and legal rights of sex workers who have been marginalized and excluded during the COVID-19 pandemic. NHRC has finally recognized them as “informal workers” in their advisory on “Women at work”. Now there is an opportunity for advocating against the atrocities faced by marginalized them. They can be formally registered and identified as sex workers. This is a step forward in the better inclusion of sex workers in government-provided relief schemes.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Supreme Court and NHRC to take cognizance of issues faced by this community. Nevertheless, the pandemic has exposed the inequalities in the social support system of our country bringing to the surface the loopholes that further marginalize the sex workers.
To have long term benefits, the government needs to decriminalize prostitution and give them status like the other “workers” of our economic sector.
Further, recognize their work and protect their rights through legal reform. Decriminalization would allow the sex workers to advocate for better working conditions. It will allow them to speak against judicial apathy and seek redressal for violations of their rights. Yet human trafficking, forced prostitution, and prostitution among minors should still remain criminalized.
Decriminalization will pave the way for the better inclusion of sex workers in contemporary society. There is a need for reform in the legal framework in this domain, that too on an urgent basis.
 Reshmi Chakraborty and Hema Ramaprasad, ‘They are starving’: women in India’s sex industry struggle for survival | Inequality and development, The Guardian ( June 14,2021) https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/29/they-are-starving-women-in-indias-sex-industry-struggle-for-survival
 Coronavirus in India: FM Nirmala Sitharaman announces economic relief package – Business News, (indiatoday.in) ( June 15,2021,2.00 PM) URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/business/story/finance-minister-nirmala-sitharaman-live-updates-economic-relief-package-india-coronavirus-1659912-2020-03-26
SUKANYA SUBHADARSHANA AND SEEMON SNIGDHA JENA, Accessing the Issues associated with the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF LAW MANAGEMENT & HUMANITIES.
Sumedha Pal, New NHRC Advisory Recognises Sex Work as Work, Addresses Key Women’s Issues, NewsClick( June 15,2021,2.30 PM) https://www.newsclick.in/NHRC-Advisory-Recognises-Sex-Work-Work-Addresses-Key-Women-Issues
 Lynzi Armstrong, Screening clients in a decriminalised street-based sex industry: Insights into the experiences of New Zealand ( June 15,2021)
Edited by: Anukriti Prakash