The Supreme Court of India’s recent direction, declaring prostitution as a profession, is a welcome development. Hopefully the decision of the apex court will help the sex workers in the long run. The plight of sex workers in India – whether they are forced into flesh trade or drawn into it voluntarily – goes largely unnoticed by policymakers. They are marginalised, stigmatised and vulnerable to harassment in a society that is deeply patriarchal and judgmental about the choices that women make. Such acknowledgement by the SC could help challenge the institutional barriers that prevent sex workers from accessing healthcare, basic rights, and equality. The taboo attached to sex work must be demolished and the focus should be on ensuring that sex workers, like any other professionals, are allowed a life of dignity with full access to constitutional rights.
Sex work must be fully legalised with periodic health screening and proper and transparent regulation. It is not a question of morality but freedom of choice. Though prostitution, per se, is not illegal in India, the provisions related to pimping, trafficking, renting out properties for running brothels and treating earnings from prostitution as a punishable offence are all problematic. The exact rights of sex workers have always been legally ambiguous in India, making them vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and run-ins with the police. The long-awaited ruling by the apex court has expanded the rights of sex workers by defining prostitution as a profession, ordering an end to police violence and affirming health and labour protections. In recent years, more countries have moved towards regulating sex work.