As Meghalayans wake up to another day in a world full of indifference, they may not realise that March 3 is International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. Over two decades back, 25 thousand of our sisters gathered for a festival despite efforts from several groups, who tried to prevent the public gathering from taking place by pressuring the state and central government to revoke their permit. The historical event was organised by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a group based in Kolkata, which is home to over 50,000 sex workers. Since then, sex worker groups across the globe have subsequently celebrated March 3 as an annual international event marking it as International Sex Workers’ Rights Day.
But living in Meghalaya, a state where sex work is still criminalised, most Meghalayans may be surprised to know that even we sex workers have such rights. Some may even argue we should not have rights at all, but we do and International Sex Workers’ Rights Day isn’t just about securing the civil rights of sex workers, it’s about securing our human rights, too. But it’s evident that our human rights are rarely recognised until we are murdered. The criminalisation of our work maintains unsafe conditions for us. It prohibits us from creating safe places to see our customers, to negotiate our work, and to access safety when needed.
A year back, when we launched an open constitutional challenge to three MLAs, none of our appeals made it to the highest court in the land or any court for that matter. Ironically and tragically, local experts (moral police NGOs, religionists and the like) disregarded our spirit by further strengthening the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 in the entire state of Meghalaya on their own. This law, which criminalises us, our clients, and third parties, offer us no protection whatsoever. Not only is its objective to eliminate the sex industry and everyone in it, but it also makes it easier for people to target us with impunity.
So having been discriminated for decades, this International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, we now demand to see a ‘Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill’ be introduced immediately which recognises our work and respects us sex workers. This bill should also regulate the sex industry like any other service industry. Most forms of consensual adult sex work remain heavily criminalised in Meghalaya, driving the sex industry underground, and resulting in sex workers fearing police. This bill should remove offences relating to consensual adult sex work altogether.
Fifty years have passed. We are on the threshold of a new age, but indifference is all I see. It’s high time the Meghalaya government took notice of the hundreds of sex workers across the state, who are trying to be heard and recognised in the fight for better working conditions, and end violence against them. It’s time to decriminalise sex work!
I Kharmuti President, Rot Association of Meghalaya (RAM)