Isn’t dignity, still a conundrum, a dream for sex workers, minors?

‘Flesh Trade: Sex for Sale at Kolkata Airport’ is a screaming headline for a story, but this is what Tehelka Special Investigation Team captured on camera post Covid time when normalcy was returning. Illegal taxi operators double up as pimps luring inbound passengers offering them even minor girls for massage and sex.

Prostitution is not illegal in India, per se. The Supreme Court on May 19 had given directions for recognising prostitution as a profession and emphasising that sex workers, like any other professionals, are entitled to dignity and constitutional rights. However, pimping, soliciting and renting out property for running brothels is illegal. Here in this case, the touts offered minor girls in the age group of 14 and 15 for sex and massage replying to the reporter disguised as a businessman’s query, “Massage ke liye le jaa bhi sakte hai”?  “Sabhi ke liye”.

This is going on with impunity. When the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict came, the sex workers in narrow streets of Kolkata’s Sonagachi, one of the largest red-light districts in Asia, rejoiced with coloured powder smeared on faces and sweets distributed. Mahasweta Mukherjee, advocacy officer of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO looking for the welfare of sex workers, had reportedly said that the organisation’s “27 years of struggle has finally borne fruit”.  But not much has changed it seems.

It is estimated that there are approximately 3 million sex workers in India, in the age group of 15-35 with majority of them being minor girls. The directions of the Supreme Court constitute only the first step. However, for many severely marred by poverty, destitution, hunger and inequalities, survival is the top priority and human rights and dignity take a back seat.  There remain dark spots in the country because most of the women, who chose this profession, willingly or forcibly, are from poor backgrounds and are dragged into this profession to support their families. The prostitution has spread evenly in many cities and the otherwise busy streets and markets during day time, turn into pick-up points for flesh trade by evening. Then there are now the online prostitution cases, which have become a challenge for the police to crack.

The police personnel also contribute to sex workers being seen more as the perpetrators of crime than being at the receiving end of it.  It is a vicious cycle of marginalisation because women prostitutes are looked down upon while children born in brothels are not easily accepted into schools. According to the directions of the Apex Court, the police have to take the complaints of sex workers seriously but there are often allegations of callousness by police. Rehabilitation, equal rights and protection seemed to be the main themes of the Supreme Court’s guidelines. But the story raises a question. Don’t they deserve a life of dignity?