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The Indian government divided states into red, orange, and green zones during the pandemic. Multiple organizations focused heavily on increasing awareness and stopping the spread of viruses, but within these colored zones, red-light sections were minimized and not included in the socially insensitive COVID-19 crisis narratives. However, even though migrant workers' conditions are poorer than other wage earners', there is little public concern about the problems sex workers face during lockdowns, despite this being a topic that frequently arises during discussion. The case being discussed here is that of sex workers, who often do not receive recognition from society and live-in red-light districts.

The number of sex workers in India is over 800,000, although unofficial estimates suggest that number may be higher. A large number of them remain there and work from the cluttered, sketchy lanes of the urban hubs that house thousands of sex workers, such as Sonagachi in Kolkata, and Majestic in Bangalore, Reshampura in Gwalior, Kamathipura, Sonapur in Mumbai, and G. B. Road in New Delhi. In the past, there have been locations like Naqqasa Bazaar in Saharanpur, Chaturbhuj Sthan in Muzaffarpur, Lalpur, and Maruadih in Varanasi, Meerganj in Allahabad, Kalinganj in Azamgarh, and Kabadi Bazar of Meerut, among others.

Even though the institution of sex work was categorically esteemed in Indian history as recorded in the Vedas, Puranas, Mahabharata, Buddhist literature, Kautilya's Arthashastra, etc., sex workers were relegated to the periphery due to the colonial hegemony of moral politics. Our society still uses the professionals who work in the red-light districts, but it publicly repudiates them while putting on a gentlemanly air and exploiting the "street of shame" rhetoric.

Children who live in Red Light Districts also have a difficult time with it. They experience abuse and discrimination because of the stigma attached to their mothers' occupations. Moreover, sex workers are more likely to contract STDs due to a lack of knowledge and awareness, and discrimination prevents them from accessing adequate health care facilities. For the general population, an HIV test may be advised if someone suffers from a persistent fever, is suffering from diarrhoea, or has an STD. It is not uncommon for sex workers to have an HIV test done while receiving medical care, even if they are not showing signs of STDs. In some cases, their tests are performed without their consent. They avoid seeking medical care for fear of getting stigmatized. Due to myths regarding rape abuse, sex workers are perpetually excluded from access to justice and recourse. It is commonly believed that a sex worker can't be raped, since the rapist assumes that her presence with multiple partners gives her permission to be raped.

Till when will sex workers have to live in a degrading manner is the one issue on which we must concentrate. How much time will it take to create laws to protect their welfare? They are human beings themselves and are entitled to fundamental human rights, and their kids should receive a quality education to ensure their financial security in the future. The rights of sex workers need to be protected as they represent one of the country's most stigmatized and socio-economically excluded groups.

Although sex work is not illegal in India, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956 (ITPA) contained some provisions that made almost all aspects of sex work illegal. The ITPA has been used to arrest and harass sex workers, whether they were forced into the profession or engaged voluntarily.

The rescue and rehabilitation arrangements of ITPA may result in the most egregious human rights violations. NGOs and special police officers raid brothels, where women are "rescued" and brought to rehabilitation facilities. Police raids, which are common in high-density areas and are often justified by the need to save minors, do not distinguish between minors and willing adults. Reports of a raid, rescue, and rehabilitation operations show how extremely violent and abusive they were.

Sex workers are brought to rehab centers where they are kept in jail-like settings, subjected to ongoing sexual abuse, and eventually released. Involuntary removal of women from brothels raises concerns about their health and safety, according to sex worker organizations. Significantly high rates of violence experienced by women in rehabilitation homes, the resumption of sex work, and the disruption of their daily lives as a result of being detained for prolonged periods, rehabilitation programs frequently undermine the very purpose of their existence.

Despite testifying that they were in sex work voluntarily, the consent of adult women who are "rescued" from sex jobs is irrelevant, and they are sent to correctional facilities. On the condition that they stop working in sex, these adult women are allowed to return to their parents' or families' custody. Moral considerations are frequently the foundation for decisions about whether to grant a parent or other member of the family "custody" of an adult sex worker.

The majority of anti-sex work laws and policing methods do make it difficult for people to exercise their legal rights to compensation for providing services that are sexual activity-dependent. Soon after India gained independence in 1956, the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act made the entire commercialized sex industry illegal (SITA). This law was modified in 1986 as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), which decriminalized adult sex as a profession in part and left sex workers in India's entire country in a legally ambiguous position. This change was made in response to constitutional challenges regarding the right to practice the profession. Keeping a brothel, "soliciting in public places," "living off the earnings of prostitutes," "seducing persons in custody," etc. are all prohibited activities that are necessary for sex work and fall under criminal laws.

Source: Author's artwork

While many women have been forced into the sex industry because of extreme poverty, a lack of job opportunities, or human trafficking, there is also a segment of sex workers who have chosen to work in the industry voluntarily. However, Indian laws view sex work through the lens of exploitation and thus prioritize eradicating prostitution over recognizing and protecting sex workers' basic human rights. The presence of red-light districts and the spooky tales associated with them demonstrate how effectively prostitution has been outlawed through legislation. Each of these scenario’s points to the need for us to change our approach to it.

The Supreme Court allegedly legalized and recognized sex work as a profession in recent days, according to several articles written in the last few days and numerous news outlets. Is this true? India did not forbid sex labor as such. India's Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956 specifically addresses sex labor. It does not make volunteer sex work illegal, but it does make certain activities illegal, such as owning a brothel.

However, why not decriminalize brothels? Isn’t the criminalization of brothels making “sex work” a disrespectful profession? Wouldn’t giving sex workers an identity gives them a veto to choosing their clients and protect them against forced prostitution? Economically speaking, wouldn’t the formalization of brothels increase the tax revenues of the country?

The act of prostitution is not morally wrong and should not be viewed as a social vice. Until the end of humanity, there will be a physical and sexual satisfaction gap. It is preferable to regulate the sex industry and turn it into a respectable profession. There was and still is a demand, which gave rise to the industry. If it isn't regulated, it will only encourage illegal marketing and more crimes against women.

Human trafficking is a crime that should not be confused with sex work. Age and consent are the two criteria that must be considered in legal proceedings. Additionally, sex workers should be given access to evidence-based, voluntary community empowerment services rather than being subjected to mandatory detention and rehabilitation. Brothels require proper regulation and decriminalization. It’s important to make sure sex work networks, federations, and collectives are empowered, actively involved, and in charge of developing policies and procedures for obtaining social entitlements and bolstering the legal access of sex workers.

The issue of legalizing sex workers has been the subject of an endless ideological debate. The voices of sex workers should be included in the development of laws and policies governing sex work by sharing their experiences and providing their opinions.

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