India’s Supreme Court Issues New Guidelines for Sex Workers’ Rights

On May 19th, India’s Supreme Court made a historic step towards advancing the rights of sex workers and ensuring their protection under the law: It issued a set of directives that acknowledges sex work as a dignified profession and mandates freedom from violence for those who practice it.

These new guidelines have the potential to dramatically change the way sex workers are treated, because although sex work is not illegal in India, sex workers suffer discrimination and stigma—and they are frequently harassed, abused or neglected by police.

AJWS grantees played an important role in this victory, which is the result of more than a decade of deliberation. The process began in 2011, when the Supreme Court created a panel to examine the living conditions of sex workers after hearing an appeal from a man convicted of brutally murdering a sex worker in Kolkata. This panel, which included an AJWS grantee, was tasked with investigating how to better prevent sex trafficking and rehabilitate those who wish to leave the sex work profession, and how to ensure the conditions necessary for sex workers to live with dignity. After years of research, the panel submitted recommendations for new legislation to the government to achieve these goals—but the government failed to create this legislation.

That is when the Supreme Court stepped up. Influenced by recommendations from the National Network of Sex Workers—a coalition that includes many AJWS grantees—the Supreme Court issued progressive guidelines to protect sex workers.

The directives published by the Court address the rights owed to sex workers who “are also entitled to equal protection and dignity in the eyes of the law,” as lead judge L. Nageshwara Rao stated.

Six key points, which will stand until a law is enacted, guarantee these rights:

  1. Sex workers who suffer sexual violence must be provided protection, support and medical assistance.
  2. State governments can be called on to release adult sex workers detained against their will in “protective homes,” and investigate these so-called rehabilitative institutions.
  3. Police should be sensitized on rights of sex workers to curb the violence and abuse often levied against them.
  4. The Press Council of India must be urged to develop media guidelines to protect the privacy and confidentiality of sex workers.
  5. The possession of condoms cannot be construed as an offence or be seen as evidence of soliciting or brothel-keeping, both of which are illegal in India.
  6. The national and state legal services should run workshops to educate sex workers about their rights and ensure access to legal aid.

In a statement from the National Network of Sex Workers, their president, Kiran, shared: “It is very important for us to know that we can access help if there are instances of sexual assault, and that medical services are available to us. We believe this will go very far for the protection of people in sex work. Specially, the directive that women won’t be forced into rescue homes makes us very happy and we are thankful.”

While the Union of India government has expressed some reservations on these guidelines and their official response won’t be filed until late July, the Supreme Court’s progressive position is a celebrated step in the direction towards equal rights for sex-workers in India.