Supreme Court of India imposes benefits on sex workers

The Indian government must enroll sex workers in digital systems that provide access to things like voting and social benefits, the country’s highest court has ruled, potentially bringing recognition and relief to thousands of people who have lived a long time. without one or the other.

The Indian Supreme Court said on Tuesday that federal and local governments must issue voter and ration cards to sex workers. The three-judge panel also said they should be enrolled in Aadhaar, the nationwide biometric system that is often crucial for obtaining social benefits.

“Fundamental rights are guaranteed to every citizen of the country, whatever their vocation,” India’s Supreme Court said Tuesday. “The government has an overwhelming duty to provide basic amenities to the citizens of the country. “

The court heard a plea filed by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective of sex workers based in Calcutta, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, which highlighted the problems faced by sex workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The collective, which said it has more than 130,000 registered members, said sex workers face hardship and called for relief measures for female sex workers and transgender people across India.

“It is a great achievement to provide a citizen identity to sex workers,” Biplab Mukheerjee, councilor of the collective, said in a telephone interview from Kolkata. “It means years of struggle and decades of suffering for hundreds of thousands of sex workers in this country. “

Prostitution is legal in India. But running a brothel and other related activities, including soliciting and pimping, are not. Rights groups estimate that India has around 900,000 sex workers. Most, they say, were pushed into the trade by crushing poverty and sometimes forced by human traffickers.

In interviews, two prostitutes said they found themselves out of work during the pandemic, especially after the government imposed a strict lockdown last year to tackle the first wave. This has led to an exodus of migrant workers, who they say are the main clients of prostitutes, from big cities and back home to remote places.

One of them, a New Delhi prostitute named Preeti, said she was confined to her tiny house, with no money, during the lockdown. She could have starved to death, she said, were it not for the gurdwaras, the Sikh temples that provide food to the needy. She asked that her full name not be used due to the stigma surrounding prostitution.

The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee filed its initial petition ten years ago seeking protection of the Indian Constitution. In September 2020, the court ordered state governments to give dry food rations to sex workers, without requiring an identity card, citing an earlier directive.

On Tuesday, the court demanded that a progress report on the directive be filed within four weeks. In the meantime, he said, governments should provide the documents to sex workers.

Sex workers suffered a setback last year after the country’s National Human Rights Commission overturned its decision previous decision ordering state governments to recognize female sex workers as informal workers, allowing them to benefit from a government program for India’s poor during the coronavirus pandemic.

The court then intervened, telling the government to provide the rations, in response to multiple appeals from advocacy groups after an investigation by the collective found less than half of sex workers were benefiting from a government food program. for the poor. The majority, he said, had remained without work.

Gitanjali Babbar, an activist who works for the welfare of more than 1,000 sex workers in part of New Delhi, said some government and private groups were providing food and other aids, such as helping pay public services. But she said it didn’t help those who were struggling to pay their rent, their children’s school fees, and their debt payments.

“It’s not just about subsidized rice, it’s about dignity. Why can’t sex workers enjoy the same benefits as other citizens of the country? ” she said.

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