Indian court slams police for ‘brutal and violent’ attitude towards sex workers: ‘Treat all with dignity’

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The Indian Supreme Court will next hear the matter on 27 July  (AFP via Getty)
The Indian Supreme Court will next hear the matter on 27 July (AFP via Getty)

Observing that the right to human decency and dignity extends to all individuals, the Indian Supreme Court has issued directions ordering the police not to abuse sex workers.

“It has been noticed that the attitude of the police to sex workers is often brutal and violent,” the court said while passing an order aimed at safeguarding the interests of sex workers. “It is as if they are a class whose rights are not recognised.”

“Police should treat all sex workers with dignity and should not abuse them, both verbally and physically, subject them to violence or coerce them into any sexual activity,” noted the three-judge bench comprising of justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and AS Bopanna in their 19 May order.

“Needless to say, this basic protection of human decency and dignity extends to sex workers and their children, who, bearing the brunt of social stigma attached to their work, are removed to the fringes of the society, deprived of their right to live with dignity and opportunities to provide the same to their children.”

It ordered the government to ensure that a sex worker who was sexually assaulted is provided with all facilities available to any survivor of sexual assault, including immediate medical assistance.

It also held that measures employed by sex workers for their health and safety, including the use of condoms, should “neither be construed as offences nor seen as evidence of commission of an offence”, and directed state authorities to carry out workshops educating sex workers about their rights and obligation under the law.

The court also directed the media to restrain from revealing the identities of sex workers in their capacity as victims or accused, ordering the Press Club of India to issue appropriate guidelines for this. It also ordered local governments in India to strictly comply with these directions.

File photo: Indian sex workers participate in a rally as part of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata in 2012 (AFP via Getty)
File photo: Indian sex workers participate in a rally as part of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata in 2012 (AFP via Getty)

The court passed the order while hearing a 2010 criminal appeal filed by a man found guilty of murdering a sex worker in Kolkata in 1991.

In February 2011, the Supreme Court had upheld a lower court’s order punishing him with life imprisonment. At that time, it also took suo motu cognisance of the living conditions of sex workers.

In July 2011, the court formed a committee of experts to examine steps for rehabilitation of sex workers and provide them with a life of dignity.

The panel identified three aspects that required focus: prevention of trafficking, rehabilitation for sex workers wishing to leave, and ensuring conducive conditions for those wanting to continue as sex workers with dignity as per provisions under the Indian constitution.

In 2016, the panel informed the court that the government of India was considering the recommendations it had made and “a draft legislation was published incorporating” them.

Noting that this legislation has not seen the light of day even after six years, the court said last week that the guidelines “will hold the field till a legislation is made”.

However, it did not incorporate all the suggestions made by the panel as the Narendra Modi-led federal government expressed reservations about providing equal protections to sex workers and directing police against taking criminal action when an adult sex worker is participating with consent.

The centre has also objected to the panel’s suggestion that argued against the arrest, penalisation, harassment or victimisation of sex workers during a raid on any brothel.

“Voluntary sex work is not illegal,” the panel had said.

Additional solicitor general Jayant Sud, who represented the government in court, also expressed reservation over the panel’s suggestion to include sex workers in decision-making processes involving legal reforms relating to their work, and of not separating a child from her mother “merely on the ground that she is in sex trade”.

The court has given the central government six weeks time to file its response, and will next hear the matter on 27 July.

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