A statement signed by nearly 12,000 women’s rights activists and organizations across India, “Sex Workers have Human Rights too”, has taken strong exception to by a letter by Sunitha Krishnan and her organisation, Prajwala, to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which seeks to reduce sex workers to hapless victims of violence and not citizens entitled to rights.
A well-known organization, Prajwala seeks to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate sex-trafficked victims into society. Krishnan’s letter is in response to NHRC’s recent advisory, “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of Covid19”, which recommends that sex workers should be recognised as informal workers in order that they are able to get worker benefits.
Stating that they, as also sex worker rights organisations and sex workers are “deeply disturbed” by Krishnan’s letter, which raises “myopic and moralistic objections” in the NHRC letter, is actually “a direct attack on the rights of vulnerable communities like sex workers in the context of Covid-19 – the biggest pandemic of our times”, insisting, the letter “is violative of women’s rights.”
The signatories and mainly from 255 networks and organisations include Forum Against Oppression of Women, Stree Mukti Sanghatana, Anandi, Masum Sahyar, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatana, All-India Progressive Writers’ Association, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Wada Na Todo Abhiya; sex workers’ networks All India Network of Sex Workers, National Network of Sex Workers, Taaras, Coalition; queer and trans organisations like Labia and Infosem; and NGOs Naz Foundation India Trust, Lawyers Collective, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, International Women’s Rights Action Watch, International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The statement says that the NHRC advisory “rightly acknowledges those in sex work as workers and citizens entitled to welfare measures and access to schemes for migrant workers in these pandemic times”, emphasising, “By reducing those in sex work merely to victims of sexual violence the letter from Prajwala divests them of basic rights and entitlements that fundamentally acknowledge that they are even human.”
The statement emphasises, “Sex worker collectives are fighting exploitative practices like and the self-regulatory processes they have set up are – as acknowledged by the Supreme Court – far more effective in fighting trafficking and exploitation from within even while evolving alternative livelihoods for those women who want to opt out of sex work.”

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As activists and organisations working for decades on issues related to violence against women it is deeply disturbing to see the damaging letter by Sunitha Krishnan and her organisation, Prajwala (Ltr.N0.06/CF/Praj/2020) to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This letter, in response to NHRC’s advisory titled “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of Covid19” (File No R-17/8/2020-PRP&P-Part (3) dt October 7) is a direct attack on the rights of vulnerable communities like sex workers in the context of COVID 19 – the biggest pandemic of our times.
The myopic and moralistic objections in the letter to the NHRC advisory – which recommended that sex workers be recognised as informal workers in order that they are able to get worker benefits – are violative of women’s rights at several levels:
First, it totally delegitimises the attempt of the State and the NHRC through this advisory (put together with the help of several civil society organisations working on women and human rights), to set right a historical wrong. The advisory affirms the basic rights due to adult consenting women in sex work as citizens which have been denied because their livelihood is stigmatised and criminalised.
The entitlements mentioned in the NHRC advisory include additional nutrition for lactating mothers, temporary documents so that they can access welfare measures like public distribution system (PDS); inclusion in schemes and benefits for migrant workers since many of them are living shadow lives in cities that they have migrated to in search of livelihood; recognition that they can also be victims of domestic violence from partners and families that increased during the lockdown and pandemic; free testing and treatment for Covid19 and continued health care services for prevention and treatment of HIV. By denying the fact that these women are citizens and workers, instead reducing them merely to victims of sexual violence the letter divests them of basic rights and entitlements that fundamentally acknowledge that they are even human.
It is indeed unfortunate that by conflating trafficking and sexual violence which are illegal and criminal acts with sex work that per se is not illegal in law, the letter wilfully ignores the voices of millions of adult women who independently sustain themselves and their families through sex work.
By consistently dehumanising these women for the work they do by reducing them merely to “sex slaves” who need to be “saved” through forced incarceration and/or inappropriate rehabilitation programmes this letter does a great disservice to those very women that organisations like Prajwala purport to support.
Further, by also demonising organisations and sex worker collectives that are fighting for their basic rights and dignity as citizens and workers and also fighting exploitative practices like trafficking from within, the letter wilfully ignores the fact that even the Supreme Court in its various rulings has made a clear distinction between adult women who are in sex work by choice and minors and women who have been trafficked and exploited for monitory gain by third parties.
It also wilfully ignores the fact that these organisations and the self-regulatory processes they have set up are – as acknowledged by the Supreme Court – far more effective in fighting trafficking and exploitation from within even while evolving alternative livelihoods for those women who want to opt out of sex workBlanket statement like ‘institutionalised commercial sex work is akin to slavery and can’t be termed as work’ reinforces a highly colonial, moralistic and criminalised approach

As activists and organisations working for decades on issues related to violence against women it is deeply disturbing to see the damaging letter by Sunitha Krishnan and her organisation, Prajwala (Ltr.N0.06/CF/Praj/2020) to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This letter, in response to NHRC’s advisory titled “Human Rights Advisory on Rights of Women in the Context of Covid19” (File No R-17/8/2020-PRP&P-Part (3) dt October 7) is a direct attack on the rights of vulnerable communities like sex workers in the context of COVID 19 – the biggest pandemic of our times.
The myopic and moralistic objections in the letter to the NHRC advisory – which recommended that sex workers be recognised as informal workers in order that they are able to get worker benefits – are violative of women’s rights at several levels:
First, it totally delegitimises the attempt of the State and the NHRC through this advisory (put together with the help of several civil society organisations working on women and human rights), to set right a historical wrong. The advisory affirms the basic rights due to adult consenting women in sex work as citizens which have been denied because their livelihood is stigmatised and criminalised.
The entitlements mentioned in the NHRC advisory include additional nutrition for lactating mothers, temporary documents so that they can access welfare measures like public distribution system (PDS); inclusion in schemes and benefits for migrant workers since many of them are living shadow lives in cities that they have migrated to in search of livelihood; recognition that they can also be victims of domestic violence from partners and families that increased during the lockdown and pandemic; free testing and treatment for Covid19 and continued health care services for prevention and treatment of HIV. 

By denying the fact that these women are citizens and workers, instead reducing them merely to victims of sexual violence the letter divests them of basic rights and entitlements that fundamentally acknowledge that they are even human.
It is indeed unfortunate that by conflating trafficking and sexual violence which are illegal and criminal acts with sex work that per se is not illegal in law, the letter wilfully ignores the voices of millions of adult women who independently sustain themselves and their families through sex work.
By consistently dehumanising these women for the work they do by reducing them merely to “sex slaves” who need to be “saved” through forced incarceration and/or inappropriate rehabilitation programmes this letter does a great disservice to those very women that organisations like Prajwala purport to support.
Further, by also demonising organisations and sex worker collectives that are fighting for their basic rights and dignity as citizens and workers and also fighting exploitative practices like trafficking from within, the letter wilfully ignores the fact that even the Supreme Court in its various rulings has made a clear distinction between adult women who are in sex work by choice and minors and women who have been trafficked and exploited for monitory gain by third parties.

Blanket statement like ‘institutionalised commercial sex work is akin to slavery and can’t be termed as work’ reinforces a highly colonial, moralistic and criminalised approachIt also wilfully ignores the fact that these organisations and the self-regulatory processes they have set up are – as acknowledged by the Supreme Court – far more effective in fighting trafficking and exploitation from within even while evolving alternative livelihoods for those women who want to opt out of sex work.Blanket statement like ‘institutionalised commercial sex work is akin to slavery and can’t be termed as work’ reinforces a highly colonial, moralistic and criminalised approach

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