Movements for sex workers’ rights unite to halt an Anti-trafficking Bill in India

Count Me In! Story of change

As a result of persistent and skilled advocacy by self-led sex worker networks supported by CMI!, an Anti-Trafficking Bill in India was halted in 2018. This bill conflated trafficking with sex work, which would have increased stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers, reduced their autonomy and agency, and threatened their human rights. The attempt to pass this bill was met with resistance, as sex workers in India fearlessly insisted on being counted in. 

 

In 2018 the Indian Minister of Women and Children’s Development introduced the new Trafficking for Persons Bill, which failed to make a clear distinction between the victims of sexual exploitation or human trafficking and persons who voluntarily choose to sell sex for a living, thereby criminalising all adult sex work.

The National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), a CMI! partner of Mama Cash, ADARSHA, a CMI! partner of Red Umbrella Fund (RUF), and the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), a CMI! partner of both RUF and CREA, mobilised to ensure that the voices of sex workers, and those of other social movements affected by the bill, were heard.  

The three groups, NNWS, AINSW and ADARSHA, independently and jointly launched nationwide advocacy efforts to fight the Anti-Trafficking Bill. They lobbied at state and national levels and held regular meetings with government agencies and parliamentarians, including opposition leaders.  NNSW organised seven regional meetings to foster a better understanding of the bill and to build the advocacy skills of over 100 sex workers on the distinction between sex work and trafficking, so that they could present their concerns to their parliamentarians. Sex workers met with more than 20 Members of Parliament to discuss the bill.

NNSW organised a three-day cross-movement national dialogue to share information and develop joint strategies. NNSW formed the “Coalition for an Inclusive Approach towards the Trafficking Bill” which included sex worker groups, experts from Women’s groups, labour groups, lawyers, trade union representatives, child rights groups, freedom of speech activists who drafted a critique of the Trafficking Bill. Based on the critique, NNSW and the Coalition drafted a letter based opposing the Anti-Trafficking Bill, which was signed by more than 250 non-sex worker organisations and more than 4,000 individual sex workers from NNSW.

In the process of advancing this strategy the AINSW was able to build a coalition beyond the sex worker groups including other workers in trade unions and other movements such as disability rights, transgender rights and women’s rights movements. CMI!’s partners also brought public attention to the issue; some 30 - 35 newspaper articles spoke about the efforts of sex workers, mentioning NNSW specifically. To strengthen their presence at the national level and to amplify their lobbying and advocacy efforts, NNSW opened an office in New Delhi. 

Their advocacy went beyond local and national levels, bringing the issue to international attention and meeting with representatives of UN bodies, including the ILO, UN Women, and UNAIDS. During an anti-trafficking and sex work meeting between funders and activists held in Bangkok in February 2018, two sex workers from NNSW presented their work and shared the negative effects of anti-trafficking policies in India. Advocacy efforts directed at UN bodies were also effective. In July 2018, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement, which urged the Indian Parliament to revise the bill in accordance with human rights law and in consultation with civil society organisations, UN agencies and other relevant actors. The statement reinforced the analysis of the sex workers’ organisations, which was that the bill “could lead to the blanket criminalisation of activities that do not necessarily relate to trafficking” and “conflate sex work with trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation” and the “criminalisation of all irregular migrants.”  

 
Sensing widespread opposition, the Indian government communicated that they would not present the bill, but rather referred it to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for review, consultation and revision.  Per parliamentary procedure, this bill has lapsed and will have to be reintroduced in the lower house of Parliament, starting the process all over again. With this victory behind them, CMI!’s partners continue to speak out and convey their message: “Nothing about Us, Without US”. In the words of one of the partners: 


It’s essential to remember that as community we alone can’t make too loud voices. We realise[d] this through this years’ collaboration with allies in various areas, when doing the advocacy at national level with different stakeholders. 

- ADARSHA

The role of CMI!
CMI! members provided NNSW, AINSW and ADARSHA with the financial resources and capacity building support that enabled them to skilfully lobby against the bill. Sex workers brought significant pressure on policy makers and legislators to review various provisions of the bill that were seen to adversely impact sex workers rights. The advocacy was carried out at different levels – to influence the content of the bill and the process of drafting the bill which excluded consultations with sex workers who would have been disproportionately impact by the bill. Moreover, sex workers groups were able to build a coalition with other movements to form a stronger and more powerful movement demanding inclusion in a consultative process on the law. The resources ensured that sex workers were involved at all levels of the decision-making process and that their perspectives helped to determine the outcome of the Anti-Trafficking Bill.

More CMI! stories of change:

Spotlight advocacy – ensuring a seat at the table for feminist movements

Malawi women empower themselves and others to expand access to HIV treatment