According to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1960, if anybody above 18 years uses the earnings of a sex-worker, he or she can be prosecuted. If the children of sex workers use their mothers’ income, long hand of law can catch them.
“How many children start earning at 18? Why this bias against us when we strive to study and make a living against all social hurdles,” rues Parvati, daughter of a Kolkata-based commercial sex worker.
Last week, sex workers aided by young advocates from Lawyers’ Collective met members of Parliament, including Congress leaders Oscar Fernandes, Mani Shankar Iyer, Priya Dutt and JD Seelam, CPM leader Basudev Acharia and Minister of State for Health Dinesh Trivedi, to build up support to bring about changes in the ITP Act that criminalises sex workers’ earnings on which their children are dependent.
“The leaders agree that law and morality cannot be clubbed together. There is a consensus that sex workers and their children should not be decriminalised,” said Veena, a member of Karnataka Sex Workers Union.
According to an estimate made by the Union Health Ministry, there are approximately 12.5 lakh self-identified commercial sex workers who were contacted as a part of the HIV prevention programme. “The number can be more as many don't declare their status upfront,” said Tripti Tandon from Lawyer’s Collective.
Having sex in exchange for money is not an offence in the law. But everything around this transaction has been criminalised under the ITPA. Brothels are illegal as is sex work in hotels, rooms, lodges, streets and nearly all other premises. In the absence of a designated place, sex workers have to solicit business on the streets or gesturing from other conspicuous sites. But this, too, is punishable with imprisonment for six months and a penalty.
An NGO, representing sex workers filed a PIL in the Kolkata High Court in July, challenging five clauses in the ITPA. The case is yet to be heard.
The ITPA clauses they challenged include criminalisation of brothels, criminalising the earnings of sex workers, prostitution around a notified public place, soliciting and the power given to a magistrate to evict sex-workers from their home and forbidding their re-entry.