Indian Government Fails to protect Sex Workers during Covid-19 Crisis
The Corona-virus pandemic has had a significant impact on the sex work industry in India. Sex work in India largely falls under the bracket of the informal sector as the women who do sex work mostly earn daily wages. This reflects the plight of over 657,799 sex workers in India, the estimate of the total number of sex workers living in India as per the 2016 UNAIDS survey. The State must take measures to provide social and other services to sex workers.
The sex worker industry in India comprises a heterogenous mix that includes members of the LGBTQ community. The stigma attached to this industry leaves the workers vulnerable to deprivation, marginalization and social ostracization. This invisibility springs from their perceived immoral profession that is accentuated by laws possessing undertones of Victorian morality such as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956that makes sex work partially illegal and criminalizes solicitation in public places. This legislation does not contain provisions to protect the sex workers even if they were trafficked into the said trade. In addition, the Epidemic Diseases Act,1897 in specific the National Disaster Management Guidelines, 2008 relating to the management of biological disasters contains no reference to protection or evacuation of marginalized communities, including sex workers who live in poor conditions and are vulnerable to being infected with COVID -19.
In the wake of this pandemic, sex workers are subject to government indifference and apathy of the judicial system in the country. In an effort to protect the marginalized, the Government announced various schemes valued at $22.5billion. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether sex workers could reap the benefit of such schemes as most of them do not have access to the requisite technology required to set up Jan Dan accounts in their names amidst the lockdown measures. The Chairperson of the National Commission for Women in India stated that letters were written to the Government of Maharashtra, Delhi and West Bengal to provide basic amenities for sex workers and that reliance must also be placed on initiatives by civil society organizations. Unfortunately, in other States, the lack of a uniform policy from the Central Government to tend to the needs of sex workers means that they are likely with no or with little protection.
The lack of a concerted effort to protect sex workers violates several rights in the Indian Constitution and under international law. Article 47 of the Indian Constitution places a positive obligation on the State to improve public health and standard of living. The failure of the State to take steps to improve the conditions of sex workers has left them defenceless against the consequences that arise with the contraction of the disease which violates the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution(which includes the right to health) and Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While the government has introduced social distancing measures to curb transmission of the disease, sex workers who have cramped living arrangements are not able to protect themselves. Interventions to force the government to take measures that protect sex workers have failed. The Delhi High Court has recently dismissed Public Interest Litigation filed in favour of sex workers on the grounds that adequate schemes exist to benefit citizens which were also accessible to them. The case was a request that the court direct the government to provide financial aid and basic amenities to sex workers and members of the LGBTQ community and the court failed to recognize them as a marginalized group.
There is an urgent need for judicial and state intervention to protect the rights of sex workers. A possible intervention would be to provide safe houses for sex workers. Further, as commercial sex work could surge the number of cases of COVID -19, there has been a decrease in the number of clients. This has had a devastating impact on sex workers who solely rely on this work to make a living. Thus, the State should allocate targeted relief funds to ensure that sex workers who lose income because of Covid-19 regulations are able to access social services. It should also ensure that these funds reach sex workers who do not have access to the requisite technologies.