Sex workers’ communities in the western Maharashtra town of Sangli have expressed their happiness over the visit by member secretary of National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Alok Aggarwal and director Geetanjili Goel to the red-light area on Friday and Saturday. They hope that this visit will send out a strong message.
The development assumes importance since they took time to visit with members of Veshya Anyaya Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the collective of sex workers. “Given our regular de-humanising experience of abuse and badmouthing from the police and lower courts, this was completely new. Who would have thought that such senior officials would actually come meet us and talk to us about the issues we face,” said sex worker and community activist Nilawwa Sidhareddy from Karad. “I hope this sends a message to local authorities who keep abusing us with impunity.”
The team from NALSA, Maharashtra SLSA, Satara and Sangli DLSA including district and sessions judge S Tawade met with female, male and transgender sex workers, especially Dalit and Muslims who faced discrimination time and again. They heard from the community members about their work, collectivisation efforts and the challenges faced. The NALSA team also visited the red-light area of Sangli and interacted with sex workers there.
This exercise assumes special significance given how the NALSA leadership has on numerous occasions encouraged vulnerable communities to come forward and seek their rights in partnership with authority.
Members from VAMP shared the various challenges they faced in accessing social schemes over appropriate proof of residence and identity. Due to frequent movement for work, many women and transgender people did not have residence proof. Even the women who resided in homes for a period of time found it difficult to produce documentation since landlords did not issue rent receipts.
Sidhareddy lamented the plight of sex workers’ children who were unable to obtain certificates for accessing schemes and benefits reserved for SC/ST categories. “Women in sex work often can’t provide evidence of the child’s father’s lineage for 50 years. So, the children continue to be denied caste certificates despite being from the SC/ST category,” she told the visitors.
Other sex workers like Chayya from Satara spoke about indiscriminate raids against adult women in sex work where they were indiscriminately picked up for running brothels and sex work in public places and sent to rehabilitation homes. “We are not allowed to meet our families and lawyers and kept in detention for at least 21 days. We keep telling the judge that we are adult and not trafficked, but they don’t listen.”
After hearing out the various complaints, Aggarwal assured the community: “Legal services will include women, men and trans sex workers as para legal volunteers so that they can be a vital link between the community and the legal services.” He further told the audience, “District Legal Services Authorities will conduct legal aid clinics to understand and resolve your issues.”
Responding to complaints of the lack of access to lawyers following rescue drives, he stated that a committee comprising the Legal Services Authority, DSP and community members could be formed to ensure that those sex workers sent to rehabilitation homes would be able to access free legal aid.
Goel echoed him while speaking to the community. “All women are equal regardless of whether they are sex workers. No woman can be discriminated on grounds of her profession.” She further pointed out, “The Supreme Court has laid down that just because a woman is in sex work, does not mean that she could not be raped. A sex worker is equally entitled to protection of the law from violence.”
The visit of the Maharashtra SLSA and NALSA team was aimed at interacting with sex workers from Sangli and Satara and building a bridge with the DLSA from these districts to work in partnership with these collectives to strengthen social justice.
Over 700 female, male and transgender sex workers from Sangli and Satara districts of Maharashra and Belgaum, Bagalkot districts of Karnataka were present at a meeting organised by Sangram a grassroots health and human rights NGO from Sangli spearheading the battle for legal rights and dignity for sex workers. Also present at the meeting were Sunil Kotwal, member secretary, Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority; NH Makhare, member secretary, Sangli District Legal Services Authority and J Kharade, member secretary of Satara District Legal Services Authority.
The proposed initiative to institute legal aid clinics for sex workers, train sex workers as para-legal volunteers and constitute a committee with DLSA, police and sex worker community as members could also serve as a model engagement with the vulnerable communities to enable them engage more effectively with the legal system in India.
Meena Seshu of National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), who runs SANGRAM, told dna: “The NLSA and SLSA have a crucial role to play in the lives through ensuring social justice for people in sex work. They can ensure training on legal literacy for sex workers on their rights and existing social welfare legislations. They can also help to monitor the implementation of schemes and access of social and legal entitlements for sex workers. An awareness and sensitive DLSA is a critical link for ensuring free access to legal services. We hope that this visit by the member secretary of Maharashtra SLSA and NALSA will help us move in that direction.”
Seshu’s colleague advocate Aarthi Pai said: “Sex workers from VAMP have undergone training on the laws and have used this training and knowledge to participate as resource persons in various workshops. We also sought inclusion in drafting laws and policies that affect sex workers with policy makers, Supreme Court constituted panels, government-appointed commissions and international treaty bodies.”