Anti-Trafficking Bill: Criminalizing Sex Work without Rehabilitation?

Policy Making Aug 11, 2021

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On June 30, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) uploaded the Draft Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care, and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021. It invited stakeholders to offer comments and suggestions by July 14. In response, the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW)- a network of sex workers’ organizations from 17 states in the country, wrote a letter to the ministry seeking an extension till August 13 for submitting their feedback. AINSW expressed regret over how the ministry had taken over two years to draft the bill but had given the affected groups and communities less than two weeks to share their views. They also noted that legally, every draft legislation is required to be placed in the public domain for a minimum of 30 days.

Members of AINSW explained how the given deadline doesn’t allow them to consult with groups across the country due to the second wave of the pandemic. The Draft Bill is also available only in English and hence needs to be translated into regional languages before being distributed to discuss its provisions with sex workers. Even lawyers have expressed that they need more than two weeks to carefully examine all the clauses and assess their possible implications.

Despite the requests made by AINSW and many others, the Centre listed the anti-trafficking bill for introduction, consideration, and passing during the Monsoon Lok Sabha session. Following this, AINSW sent another letter to MWCD to register their protest against the plan to go ahead with the Bill without considering the opinions of stakeholders.

Though organizations haven’t been able to assess the Draft Bill thoroughly, there are some apprehensions about it. The main concern is regarding how the Bill criminalizes sex work without providing any rehabilitation for victims. Activists have spoken about how instead of having a victim-centred approach that emphasizes rescue and rehabilitation, the Bill has a punishment-oriented approach. This undermines the safety of survivors instead of protecting their rights. Bandana Pattanaik and Leah Sullivan, from The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, have stated that the most constructive approach to preventing human trafficking is a rights-based approach.

Lawyers have also pointed to a clause in the Bill that states, “the consent of the victim shall be irrelevant and immaterial in the determination of the offence of trafficking in persons.” This adds more stigma to sex work by equating it with trafficking. It disregards the fact that some individuals have chosen sex work as their occupation voluntarily and puts them at risk of imprisonment. Further, criminalizing sex work not only turns a blind eye to the profession but also makes sex workers more prone to exploitation due to the lack of safety nets and labour protection. Under this new legislation, workers may become more vulnerable to violence or extortion, since they, as criminalized subjects, cannot seek legal protection.

Nalini Jameela, a former sex worker and activist said, “Sex work is different from trafficking and is a form of self-employment that is stigmatized.” Experts have warned that the focus on policing and criminalizing over taking welfare measures makes the proposed Bill anti-sex workers.

Sex workers have always been allies to anti-trafficking. Organizations representing them are voicing out their concern in hopes that the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us’ will be followed in letter and spirit.

This article has been written by Pravallika Manju for The Paradigm

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