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Sex Workers Seek Changes in Anti-Prostitution Law, 10 December 2005

New Delhi: Asserting that they were like any other labourer and got paid for their services, a group of sex workers in the capital Friday protested a proposed amendment to an anti-prostitution law they say will hurt their livelihood.

The sex workers, gathered under the National Network of Sex Workers, a federation of sex workers' organisations in the country, stated at a press conference that the proposed amendments to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, go against their interests and would lead to higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the country.

Facing a large gathering of journalists and television crews, the six sex workers, including a eunuch, did not in any way look like the gaudily painted versions seen in films.

Speaking with confidence, the women were clear in their demand that a proposed amendment to the act, Section 5C, which provides punishment for a person visiting a brothel for sexual exploitation, should be removed as it would hit India's approximately five million sex workers "in the stomach".

Swapna Gayen, a sex worker from Sonagachi, the red-light area in Kolkata, said whenever the government proposes amendments to labour laws, it takes the workers into consideration and holds discussions with them.

"In our case, the government did not think it fit to even consult us. We are law abiding citizens and do our work of serving customers like any other labourer, so why should we not be given the same rights as other workers?"

"If the government goes ahead with the clause to arrest our clients, then it will be like kicking us in the stomach," said Swapna, who is from the Durbar Mahila Samanvay Committee (DMSC).

Dressed in a yellow saree with a black pullover, Swapna said the proposed Section 20, which discourages trade in residential areas, will hurt them as house owners would not let them carry on their trade. "As it is the bariwalas (house owners) do not give us receipts and charge higher rents from us. Now the government is planning to take away our place of work too."

"We don't rob or steal, we don't beg or ask for favours. We are citizens of the country and want our rights," she said forcefully.

Satyawati, a sex worker from Karnataka, said the police harassed them from time to time and even put them behind bars for three-four months. "Whenever police arrest us, they paw us and talk lewdly with us," she said. Nirmal Dutta, a former WHO project director on HIV/AIDS prevention in Sonagachi, said if the amendment to arrest clients was passed, then it could lead to further spreading of HIV/AIDS in the country.

"Once the sex workers are not allowed to practice their trade in houses under Section 20, then sex workers will be forced to go out into the streets to solicit customers," he said.

"The sex workers will be open to bargaining to earn their livelihoods. The clients will then force them to agree to sex for little money and minus condoms, which the sex workers insist on. This will spread HIV/AIDS," said Dutta, the son of a sex worker.

He said a self-regulatory body that DMSC had set up in West Bengal, which screened new entrants into the profession to see if they were below 18 years age or were forced into it, should be converted into an all-India body.

To a suggestion about licensing the profession, the members in unison said they were against it. "We are not for licensing, but for de-criminalisation of our trade," said Malashree, a sex worker from Andhra Pradesh.

The group welcomed the proposed deletion of Section 8, which provides for punishment for seducing or soliciting customers by sex workers. They also demanded that the provision for a two-year jail term for the "dalal" or pimps who forced them into the profession be extended into "life".

The group, which includes members from Sonagachi and from Karnataka and Andhra, arrived in the capital five days ago and met senior government officials and political leaders including Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Brinda Karat and officials of the Planning Commission. A delegation met the secretary at the Prime Minister's Office Thursday and "the interactions were good," said a member.

The Human Resource Development ministry is supposed to table the bill with the proposed amendments in the winter session of parliament. The group plans to hold a march to parliament on March 3 next year on the issue.

News Article from India News Link to India News