Law · Society

Rights of Sex Workers in India


Since ages together even Vedas have mentioned about the work and conditions of workers that provide services that satisfy a man’s lust in the form of carnal desire.  Kamasutra is one of those scriptures which actually provide recognition of the role of prostitutes. However, many Hindus consider the Kamasutra as an “obscene book”, and some even go as far as denying its uprightness as a Vedic scripture.

In fact, the Kamasutra currently available was amassed by Vatsyayana Rishi on the teachings of Nandikesvara, the same cohort of Shiva Mahadeva who also educated the Natya shastras. However, with the period of time mentality of the people have differed from each other in variety of ways. While some people consider that such workers should also be granted with equal rights in terms of dignity and their profession be legalized. However, some contend that their work is illegitimate and should in any consequence be not recognized. They also have the requisite right to practice their profession freely as imbibed under Article 14 of our Indian Constitution. We also fail to recognize the fact that even males are involved in this profession .However, the worst affected remains the women.

Background of the Problem

Even after being a party to so many international conventions on the rights of women and also has a constitution in place which prohibits discernment and abuse on the basis of gender , it has failed miserably to protect rights of women specifically those of sex workers.[1]

The issue not being legalized in many parts of world, and is as such; of transnational in nature has created a complex web of crimes and illegitimate activities which are wholly dependent on each other. With India being one of those countries not giving proper mechanism for the redressal of grievances posed in the lives of sex workers such as harassment, torture, inhumane conditions of living, forced and incomplete abortions and inadequate wage, no proper channel for HIV testing and most importantly the ‘social stigma’ the workers and their family have to face while carrying about their daily errands.

It is legal in India as under section 377 of Criminal Procedure Code.[2]However, no of related activities such as pimping in public, kerb crawling[3], owning or managing a brothel, prostitution in a hotel[4] and pandering are rendered as crimes! Then how are we supposed to really bring about the pre-requisite change. Right to freely practice one’s profession as inscribed as “Right to freedom” under Article 22 is being violated indiscriminately here in this case.

Many parts of the country even after being developed and so much progress economically and politically still fail to acknowledge the prevailing mistreatment of sex workers in their areas. For instance Mumbai has witnessed a sharp increase in police crackdowns and higher rents are driving the commercial sex industry out of traditional red-light areas and underground, with calls on Friday from social workers to not put the lives of the sex workers at a danger.[5]

Now, the profession has become lesser institutionalized and, lesser recognized and is much more dishonest and subtle now.

In recent times, even foreigners have started to carry out their prostitution businesses in India. However, unfortunately, they are being curbed by the Indian Authorities to actually do so. In 2015 ten Thai women were arrested in India on prostitution charges for allegedly running two brothels masquerading as massage parlors.[6]

Even though women have been earning their due places in their respective professions but this one seems to lack behind and is even discouraged by the government, society and their families at large. This social evil is not only prevailing in India but also in the world at large.

Many international institutions like Amnesty International have been making their voices heard, and are also developing consultation to develop a policy to protect human rights of the sex workers.[7] But the point of discussion remains as to, “How we can make this profession socially acceptable?”

Also following below are some of the issues that necessitate the much needed deliberations between governments, policymakers, public and also so called moral police?

  • How to provide alternative option for occupation to those who want to leave prostitution?
  • Shall the government provide social security benefits with emphasis to disabled sex workers?
  • Does their profession really infringe upon the religious purity of other people?
  • Can men ever be held accountable for causing distress to the women sex workers?
  • How can we free them from the trauma caused by the so called “Social stigma”?

Many feminists and advocates of all streaks have accentuated upon the human rights of the sex workers often failing to understand what human rights of sex workers are exactly.[8] Some feminists are of the purview that involving oneself into sex work or trading sex for money can be inherently dangerous and violent against one’s security.

Life for them has been a struggle for a while and we as responsible citizens aren’t willing to change the gross scenario for the sex workers. Shall we not bring about change?


The Judiciary has started taking initiative and has actually brought about a real in change in execution of the powers as and when required. As in response to the intervention brought in by Lawyers collective (an NGO which promotes human Rights) in Tara vs. State[9] the Delhi High under Article 226[10]court overturned the forcible detention and transportation of 15 adult sex workers to Andhra Pradesh, terming it illegal and violative of their fundamental rights.

In one of the cases the following observations threw a major light on the fundamental rights of the sex workers:

Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal, Criminal Appeal No. 135 of 2010 in the Supreme Court of India

This case has arisen out of a criminal appeal in the Supreme Court wherein the accused, Budhadev Karmaskar, was convicted for murdering a sex worker in Calcutta in 1999. While dismissing the appeal and affirming the conviction in February, 2011, the Supreme Court suo moto converted the appeal into public interest litigation a on the rehabilitation of sex workers. The Court observed that “the prostitutes also have a right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution of India since they are also human beings and their problems also need to be addressed”. It further noted that “a woman is compelled to indulge in prostitution not for pleasure but because of abject poverty. If such a woman is granted opportunity to avail some technical or vocational training, she would be able to earn her livelihood by such vocational training and skill instead of by selling her body.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court directed “the Central Government and all the State Governments to prepare schemes for giving technical/vocational training to sex workers in all cities in India.” The Central Government and the State Governments were asked to submit their responses to the same.

Subsequently on 4th May, 2011, the Supreme Court impleaded Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a sex worker’s organization and its affiliate, Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society (USHA) from Kolkata, as parties to the case and sought their views on the subject of rehabilitation of sex workers. Read the affidavits filed by DMSC and USHA and an additional affidavit filed by DMSC, who are being represented in Court by the Lawyers Collective.


We can only hope for a future filled with joy, happiness and satisfaction in the lives of sex workers. They should be given justice at par. Their grievances shall be heard equally (Audi altrem partem). Derivation of solutions would take enormous time as our society needs a complete mental revolution for the acceptance of prostitution as a decent profession.

By: Ruchira Bali



[2]  Prostitution: should the laws be changed?”BBC News. 2001-08-03.

[3] It’s a type of street prostitution.

[4]  Section 7 in The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956.


[6] “10 Thai women arrested for prostitution in India”Bangkok Post (Jaipur, India). 9 November 2015. Retrieved 9 November 2015

[7] Catherine Murphy, ‘Sex Workers Rights are Human Rights’ , 14th August 2015


[9] W.P. (CRL) 296/2012

[10] Article 226 grants HC to reinforce and protect the fundamental and legal rights of the people .

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