Distressed and Disappointed: Sex Workers Write to Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray for Immediate Action Regarding Violence Against Sex Workers

On the occasion of New Year, we the women of Maharashtra send you and your family our greetings and good wishes. We hope that the new year brings a renewed commitment from your government to ensure that the most marginalized communities get the opportunities they have been deprived of such that they are able to lead lives of dignity and equality.

We too are women from one such marginalized and stigmatized community. And we appreciate that you have displayed effective governance by reaching out during the last two years when hunger and despair haunted our homes during the COVID pandemic and the lockdown. We are forced to live shadow lives cast us out as criminals despite the fact that we break no law other than that imposed by a dominant moral codes by a society that for time immemorial has lived with the reality of sex work or veshya vyavasaya — as long as the sex workers themselves don’t reveal themselves in public life. We feared that the State which was reaching out to thousands of workers in the organized and unorganized sectors who lost their jobs and sources of income as a result of the lockdown might have forgotten about us. Failing to understand, like most of society, that for many women sex work is a sustainable source of livelihood, however reviled it may be.

However, you ensured that the government systems identified our specific needs and facilitated whatever relief was due to us as citizens of this country. Let us remind you of the very positive steps taken by your Government towards this:

  1. On 23 July 2020, the Department of Women and Child, Government of Maharashtra issued a circular calling on the district administration and WCD to support sex workers and those rescued under ITPA during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this It was said “The women in sex work (Veshya Vyavsay) and the women who have left sex work have lost their income generation options. Due to lock down they are not able to get other jobs either which leads them and their families to starve. You should provide free ration and all essential services to the above-mentioned women.” [Translation of Letter dated 23 July 2020, Women and Child Department, Government of Maharashtra].
  2. This letter from WCD, Maharashtra was used in a Supreme Court judgment on 29 September 2020 wherein the Supreme Court of India has passed directives for sex workers to receive dry rations and other benefits without insisting on their identity. As per the order this relief should be provided by CBOs who are in contact with the sex workers.

“CBOs that are in contact with sex workers including those who do not identify themselves as such in public fora but rely on sex work as their primary or secondary occupation. CBOs are best placed to contact sex workers and deliver services in discreet and non-stigmatising ways”. [page 9, Budhadev Karmaskar versus Union of India]

3. The same Maharashtra Government WCD advisory was also used in the submission made to the National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi by the National Network of Sex Workers. This was also included by the NHRC in their advisory on Sex Work and COVID -19.

Various Government departments / officials of the Maharashtra Government have been most useful in reaching out to us and who we have worked with have been the District AIDS Prevention Control Unit (DAPCU), Welfare Department, Health Department, PRI, Women and Child Department, Social Welfare and Revenue Departments. In some places the district collector, and block tehsildar have also reached out to sex workers.

Just as we have been recovering by the debilitating impact of COVID with the help of these departments we are now being struck by another horrific pandemic this time initiated by yet another arm of the Government — the police. We write now to bring to your urgent attention the systematic and widespread use of police brutality and violence on women across the state. This is in total contradiction to the concern expressed by the government in the last two years. Allow us to share with you just some instances of the ways in which the police have been ruthlessly intent on destroying our lives and livelihoods which have already been ravaged by COVID:

1. On 10 December 2020–88 adult women in sex work were raided in the midst of the COVID epidemic, kept overnight in a room in Ganga Jamuna area, Nagpur.

2. On 8 August 2021 — Commissioner of Police declared Section 144 in Ganga Jamuna, a red -light area of Nagpur, barricaded 15 of the 16 access points into the area. All clients were warned against entering the area. Movement of over 2000 women and their families are limited and scrutinized. Police were continuously combing the area demanding ID proof and declaring that non-Maharashtrian sex workers are not permitted in the area.

3. On 24 October 20 — The Commissioner of Police declared areas as Public Place under the ITPA Act and prohibits sex work within 200 metres. Ganga Jamuna has been in existence for over 250 years. Today the Police roam inside Ganga Jamuna and pick up any clients found in the area. Some of them pay close to 10,000 to escape police harassment. The current status is that over 700 women have uprooted their lives and run away from Ganga Jamuna in search of safer places to do sex work. There are hardly 500 women left. Police continues to barricade the main roads leading into Ganga Jamuna and any men approaching the area are chased away.

4. On 31 October 2021 — Amalner, Jalgaon — the local PI shut down a house where they said sex work was happening. Two women in sex work, say that they are being pressurised by the police to give up sex work. Police are threatening and demanding that they “officially declare” they are giving up sex work by putting up boards outside their house. Media clips identifying their homes and police giving news bytes in front of their homes.

5. On 10 December 2021 — in Nashik, the red-light area has been completely shut down and the place has been sealed using barricades.

6. In Nagpur a client is caught by a police who extract Rs. 10000 through a phone app. The police visits his office harass him and the client changes his story and says he never gave any money to the police. However it is the sex worker a poor woman with no home and two children to look after, who is arrested by the police on charges of trying to outrage the modesty of a woman and sexual harassment! She is presented in court where the application of these absurd sections is bought to the attention of the Hon’ble court. Bail is set for Rs. 15000. What kind of justice is this? Where is the accountability of the police department to initiate an impartial inquiry when such charges are levelled?

7. On 22 December 2021 — Chopda Jalgaon — a raid was conducted by police and two members from an organization Rescue Foundation came from Delhi under the pretext of searching for a minor. The police conduct the raid and pick up 25 women as “victims” and 11 women under brothel keeping charges. All women are adults and said that they are doing sex work of their own volition. Despite that, they have been sent to Sudhar Gruh. The men from Rescue Foundation have left without any accountability for the havoc they have caused in the lives of 36 women. Where is the justice in this?

The list goes on. Given these developments over the last few months we are deeply worried for ourselves and for our families. It seems that the police are out on a well -coordinated drive to swoop down on and attack all red -light areas and hound us out of our homes. What they will end up doing is further stigmatizing and criminalizing the women and perhaps drive them further underground where they will become more vulnerable to the violence of rowdies and criminal gangs. There are lakhs of sex workers (female, male and trans) in Maharashtra– many of whom are not able to come out openly as sex workers such that they can claim the benefits that are due to them. Are the police planning to imprison or incarcerate all these women either in jails or rehabilitation homes or give them alternative sources of livelihood overnight?

We would like to reiterate that as member of NNSW we are fully aware both of our rights and our responsibilities. While we are committed to protecting the dignity and rights of those adult women who are in sex work with their consent, we are equally committed to fighting trafficking. We have cooperated with the local police wherever we are to apprehend traffickers, save minors from being brought into this trade and also adult women who do not want to do sex work. We have taken responsibility for our health and that of the wider community in terms of working on HIV/AIDS prevention and control as peer educators. We have also taken responsibility to ensure education and opportunities for our children such that they are able to choose their own futures that were perhaps not available for many of us when we came into sex work. This is the kind of “rehabilitation” we have conceived of for ourselves and we are entitled to support and solidarity of state and society to achieve these goals.

In this context the kind of violence that the police are doing in the name of maintaining law and order and forceful rehabilitation is both dehumanizing and criminal. The Supreme Court in its various judgements on sex workers has interpreted the law in ways that are acknowledging the humanity and the rights of women in sex work. It is a shame the police are not following the directives or the directions laid down by the highest court of the land.

On this the first day of the new year we are therefore writing to you both with distress and with hope.

Distress that we are being treated like criminals and terrorists. But also with hope that you will take immediate and urgent steps to stop this wave of raids that is going to further impoverish our women and drive them to despair and destitution.

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National Network of Sex Workers India

NNSW is a national network of sex worker-led organisations and allies committed to promoting the rights of sex workers in India.