What India’s Sex Workers Want: Power, Not Rescue

5:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Street art in West Bengal advocates labor rights, rather than criminalization or ‘rescue,’ for sex workers. The Durbar Committee is a self-described ‘collectivization of 65,000 sex workers’ based in India. (Wolfgang Sterneck / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Anu Mokal wasn’t breaking the law when she was out walking with her friend last year, yet to the police, her very existence was criminal. As a sex worker in the Indian state of Maharashtra, she lives under various laws aimed at criminalizing the sex trade, supposedly to protect women from exploitation. But it was the law that became her assailant that day when a police officer viciously attacked her, hurling insults and beating her severely.

Mokal pleaded that she was pregnant, but—according to Meena Seshu, founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, a sex workers’ rights and anti-HIV/AIDS organization—the officer accused her of lying and said sex workers had “no right to be mothers.” A few weeks after the assault, she miscarried.

India has not outlawed sex work itself, but sex workers face various restrictions on related activities such as soliciting in public or pimping. The law had left her defenseless, however, against the violence of the state. Fortunately, another advocate stepped in on her behalf: SANGRAM and its affiliated sex worker activist collective, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP). The activists demanded that Maharashtra politicians investigate the beating and institute reforms, including a grievance commission to address abuses of sex workers’ human rights.

Mokal’s brutalization might seem like just a product of local police corruption or culturally embedded prejudice. But the attack echoed a deeper culture of oppression that sex workers face around the world at all levels of society, not just in the streets but in the social institutions that are supposed to protect them. Beyond the officer’s blows, this insidious political assault against sex workers even permeates the work of international humanitarian programs—funded in large part by the foreign aid that pours into the Global South from Washington’s coffers.

An obscure directive embedded in PEPFAR, the White House’s keystone global HIV/AIDS program, has for years explicitly barred U.S. support for any organization that aids sex workers. As it was originally written, the legislation dictated that in order to qualify for PEPFAR funds, both U.S.-based and overseas NGOs must actively pledge that they do not support prostitution. Though the actual implementation of the pledge has been stalled by years of litigation and a recent Supreme Court decision, it has nonetheless pressured both U.S. and international organizations to restrain their programs for sex workers for fear of the financial consequences. Advocates argue that the pledge effectively penalizes groups working with extremely vulnerable communities, leaving countless sex workers deprived of critical services and social supports.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently dealt a potentially lethal blow to the so-called “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” by ruling that the mandatory pledge violates the free speech rights of U.S. organizations. But there’s a catch: The court’s ruling applies only to U.S.-based groups. The law still looms large over the Global South, where international aid dollars continue to mold the political discourse on sexuality. Grassroots groups based in the Global South thus continue to face a financial penalty simply for rejecting Washington’s policy of condemning and shunning sex workers.

SANGRAM, which has established itself as a leading regional HIV/AIDS service group as well as a grassroots organizing network for thousands of sex workers, has proudly defied PEPFAR, though the U.S. remains a major funder of HIV/AIDS programming in India. The group turned down an annual grant of $20,000 allocated by a U.S. funder, Avert Society, out of concern that the State Department might interfere with Sangram’s pro-sex worker rights campaigning and peer-education efforts. (The group continues to receive funds from other international donors like the American Jewish World Service.) But with or without U.S. aid, it faces a political climate suffused with the pernicious pressures of America’s “soft power.”

Humanitarian oppression

When aid comes with political strings attached, poor governments are pressured to mirror Washington’s culture wars. “This loyalty oath has had a tremendous impact globally,” says Seshu. “Not only in terms of an aid conditionality vis a vis funding, but an aid conditionality that meant that there was something hugely wrong with working with sex workers or working with issues of sex workers.”

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