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Why Sonagachi, one of Asia's largest brothels, sees ray of hope in SC verdict on sex trade

India's top court on Thursday, exercising its powers under Article 142, issued a series of directions on the 'rehabilitation' of sex workers

Why Sonagachi, one of Asia's largest brothels, saw ray of hope in SC verdict on sex trade
Sonagachi, First Published May 27, 2022, 11:38 PM IST

By Debojyoti Chakraborty

For 27 long years, we (sex workers) have been asking for legal protection, the Supreme Court decision surely has given us hope, says Bishakha Naskar, a sex worker from Sonagachi, one of Asia’s biggest brothels. 

Many like Bishakha saw a ray of hope after India's top court on Thursday, exercising its powers under Article 142, issued a series of directions on the 'rehabilitation' of sex workers, adding that police must be sensitised to treat sex workers with dignity and to avoid abusing them or subjecting them to violence. 

At Sonagagchi, which is often termed as India's biggest sex village, at least ten thousand sex workers live and earn their livelihood, braving all external pressures be it an economic crisis or health one, like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bishakha, who heads Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, has been working for almost three decades to protect the rights of sex workers and for the development of sex villages. For her, the Supreme Court's observations are a win for her team as well.

Why are we not allowed to live with dignity and to choose this as a profession like any other? What about our legal protection? Naskar has been raising these questions for nearly three decades now.

"On one hand, the arrests and searches of the police and administration continue, and on the other, the local miscreants trouble us with extortion and free services. And worse, they can't deny it because it would lead to further problems. "We are still not free from this," she said.

She said, "There is no such atrocity in any other locality and if there is, then the administration takes action. But in the villages, it is just the opposite. It is not possible to protest against oppression." 

It is not just Sonagachi alone there are still many sex villages in the country where sex workers are under constant pressure from the police, local thugs and politicians, she said. 

The police would pick up buyers or arrest sex workers, and harass sons and daughters of sex workers to put pressure on them to shell out money or free services, she added. For, what is a profession for sex workers is still seen as bigotry in parts of society. 

Sonagachi's sex workers hope that the Supreme Court's directive would help them get legal protection from these troubles, at least this time.

Calling for legal legitimacy, Naskar said the sex profession should be legalised and those associated with this profession should have a specific place where they can do their business. This move of the Supreme Court, she feels, would help families of sex workers also, who are often subjected to similar neglect and treated badly.

Is Sonagachi ready for the change?

Sonagachi is ready for the change and Supreme Court has sided with what Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee has raised a long decads back, Said Bishaka Naskar. But she questioned whether the society is ready to accept the historic judgement of the Supreme Court easily at this moment? She said, her organisation started the movement in 1994 to protect the rights of sex workers. Since then, the situation of sex workers and their villages has improved. But still, a lot needs to be done, she said. Though she is hopeful that changing mindset of the society will give sex workers dignity in a straight way and the Supreme Court's Thursday stand will lead the way.  

Mahasweta Mukherjee, who has been shouldering the fight with Bishakha, said the Supreme Court move was a 'landmark'. Highlighting the persistent problems of sex workers, Mukherjee said, "there have been several protests against the abduction of minors from the sex villages... Why would the police administration interfere with the rights of adults who want to be sex workers? Even sex workers are sometimes picked up, and photographed and those are then leaked to the media. 

The Supreme Court has taken a stand against the public disclosure of the identities of sex workers - a very good move.”

Mentor of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee Bharti Dey commented that the verdict of the Supreme Court was 'naturally positive'. Dey said the Supreme Court's position on the movement for the protection of the rights of unscrupulous sex workers over the past few decades should be recognized. There has been talk for a long time about showing humanity and respect to sex workers. 

Dey added that at one time there was a law that made sex work a crime, we fought against it and the central government had to withdraw the law. The movement for the protection of the rights of sex workers has come a long way and the position of the Supreme Court has naturally given more impetus to this movement, she Dey.

They need compassion and respect, she said, adding that even their own family members are mostly after their money but refuse to accept publicly that the money has come from the sex trade. Therefore, the sex workers do not even get the much-deserved respect even in their homes.

The position of the Supreme Court may help strengthen the voice of those involved in the sex trade. Sonagachi, the largest sex village in Kolkata and India, is currently looking forward to July 27, Dey concluded with a hopeful note.

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