Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

India’s Supreme Court rules in favour of sex workers, and women rise up

Sex workers in Hyderabad rise up against their forced detention following court’s ruling

Kimberly Walters Meera Raghavendra
27 July 2022, 6.00am

Women break out from a protective home following the Supreme Court's decision


Andhrajyothi Telugu Daily. Used with permission

On 19 May 2022, a three-justice panel of India’s Supreme Court ruled that voluntary sex work is not criminalised under Indian law and that sex workers should be treated with dignity. They directed police to refrain from “interfering or taking any criminal action against adult, consenting sex workers.” The court also directed state governments to conduct a survey of protection homes administered under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), “so that cases of adult women, who are detained against their will can be reviewed and processed for release in a time-bound manner”.

Sex worker-led groups in India hailed the court’s decision. Police and NGOs have long used the ITPA to indiscriminately raid and ‘rescue’ adult, consenting women from sex work and detain them for long periods inside locked ‘protective homes’. And now that this new ruling has been issued, women are already rising up to demand their release from confinement.

Indefinite detention

Forced, fully legal confinement of sex workers in India has long been a way to control women considered to be trafficked. In 2018 and 2019, we led a small team of researchers in the Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to conduct interviews with women housed in 15 different shelters, including with 32 ITPA detainees. We encountered only one ITPA detainee that willingly remained inside a protection home. All others were kept unwillingly under lock and key.

In our interviews, we found that the uncertain duration of detention was one of the foremost hardships these women experienced. Not a single ITPA detainee we interviewed knew when she would be released. We were told that most were able to leave after two or three months. Yet, some women had been strung from court hearing to court hearing for years and still lacked a definite release date. They described the uncertainty as a form of emotional torture.

Not one of the 80 women managed to escape.

The women we interviewed described shelters as worse than jails. Prisoners are allowed visitors and know when they are likely to get out. Neither is true for people detained under the ITPA. Instead, it was common practice in the protection homes we visited to allow ITPA detainees one five-minute phone call with a pre-approved relative every week or fortnight while being closely monitored by shelter staff. Detention furthermore made detainees incapable of caring for or financially supporting their loved ones, as many of them relied on their earnings from sex work to get by.

In some homes, detainees were encouraged to sew handicrafts or make jewellery, which the NGO then sold to donors wishing to support anti-trafficking efforts. Most women refused. A few threw themselves into the assigned craftwork as a distraction from the depressing circumstances of their detention.

Sex worker uprisings and rebellion

Just weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, 80 sex workers locked up near the city of Hyderabad rioted against their forced detention. According to a local news report, the women attacked three security guards, broke down the facility's gates, and walked for two kilometres before being subdued by police. They were then taken back to the centre, which is run by the NGO Prajwala.

One journalist said the women used their brief moment of freedom to speak out against being detained in the name of protection:

“Some demanded justice for themselves, their release from captivity and detention, and for them to be sent back to their respective places. They complained to the media that they had been living a miserable life at the rehabilitation centre for years – that inmates in jail were far better off as they at least have the opportunity to meet their family members through scheduled visitations, and that they had no freedom whatsoever of opportunity”. (Translated by Vyjanti Vasanta Mogli, a Hyderabadi trans activist)

Ultimately, not one of the 80 women managed to escape. This latest uprising of women is noteworthy for the spectacular (if curtailed) rebellion of so many detainees simultaneously. But it is not an isolated event. It follows a succession of similar uprisings, escapes, and even suicide attempts inside India’s protective homes.

In 2011, a few dozen women in Hyderabad rebelled and took control of the home for three days until staff managed to subdue them. In 2012, 23 women successfully scaled the walls of a Mumbai home and were never located. In 2014, over 100 women detained near the Hyderabad airport rioted. They smashed up the premises and damaged vehicles, injuring 16 people including four staff members, but did not manage to breach the locked gates before the police arrived.

Two weeks before our first visit to a protection home in 2018, two ITPA detainees successfully escaped. One of the women we interviewed at that home had recently attempted suicide out of frustration and hopelessness – she was being detained for an unspecified period and her son was not allowed to visit. The following year, an Uzbek national ended her life inside a Prajwala home for similar reasons. The reporter Joshua Carroll wrote in The Guardian at the time that when he asked Sunitha Krishnan, Prajwala’s co-founder, about the suicide, she said that Prajwala sees “at least two” suicide attempts a day.

Maneka Gandhi, former Minister of Women and Child Development (WCD), which oversees India’s anti-trafficking protective homes, acknowledged to reporters in the wake of the 2018 Muzaffarpur shelter scandals that the WCD engages in very little oversight of the homes it funds. In Muzaffarpur, minors inside government-funded shelters were routinely raped and beaten by the director and others, and some were apparently murdered. Further investigations found that abuse was widespread across shelters in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Gandhi told a Guardian reporter, “I know there will be many more [shelter scandals] because, for years and years, we have paid no attention, apart from giving them money.”

Activists hope that the recent Prajwala uprising will become a pivotal moment for India's sex worker rights movement. Sex workers’ demands are basic: to be treated as human beings; to be spared from police beatings, raids and forced protective custody; to be allowed to ply their trade as any other worker with full labour protections and state benefits; and to live with the dignity and freedom that India's Supreme Court has now directed that they deserve.

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