Sex Workers and Allies South Asia (SWASA) is a collaborative effort between sex workers and supportive activists and organisations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The initiative aligns itself to the LGBTQI and women’s rights movements and other struggles of the marginalized and draws attention to violations of sex workers' rights in the region..
Our goal is to strengthen leadership among sex workers and build alliances with civil society to address harmful practices; advocate for change in discriminatory laws and policies resulting in improved HIV and health services and access to justice for sex workers. We intend to do this in the following ways:
Strengthen the grassroots sex worker rights movement,
Foster dialogue with rights-based movements specifically the feminist, queer, health and dalit movements,
Use research and evidence to advocate with government, UN agencies, Commissions and panels, treaty body reporting mechanisms to strengthen the rights of sex workers nationally, regionally and globally.
The seeds of SWASA lie in the need for collaborative responses articulated in October 2010, at the Asia and the Pacific Regional Consultation on HIV and Sex Work (or the ‘Pattaya Consultation’) organized to promote a rights based approach to responding to HIV in the context of sex work in the Asia-Pacific region. An important intervention by the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) together with the UN and other developmental agencies was in the shape of position papers on four areas of sex workers’ rights which shaped the consultative process. These areas were: migration and mobility; enabling environment; sexual and reproductive health; and rights and gender based violence. This articulation provided an important framework to ground and define the next steps of leadership building among sex worker leaders in South Asia for policy advocacy and action.
National, regional and international processes offer opportunities for dialogue to advocate for policy change in partnership with civil society stakeholders. Meaningful participation in these processes was enabled by sex worker leaders in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka in partnership with SANGRAM, APNSW and UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Centre
Need for regional approach
In the South Asia region, sex workers face a high degree of violence and discrimination from duty bearers because of criminalization and moral judgments attached to their work. The sex workers’ rights movement has consistently argued that while violence within the sex industry does exist, the provision of sexual services for money by consenting adults does not in and of itself constitute violence. Most countries of South Asia share the legacy of British legal jurisprudence which has continued even in the post-colonial period. In Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka sex work in private is not illegal but activities surrounding sex work are illegal. The interface of law with the daily life of sex workers and the impact of legislation, policies and practices on sex-workers, is deep. There is a need to articulate and evolve a Strategic Action Framework (regional and in-country) through a common understanding of how discriminatory laws, policies and practices at the country level impacts sex workers. Such understanding can be deepened by listening to the narratives of sex workers.
For more on laws relating to sex work in South Asia click here.
From 2012 onward, the South Asia region faced challenges that in part emerged as a backlash to positive developments in the context of the global recognition of sex work(er) rights.
At the global level two crucial reports from UN agencies in 2012-13 sought decriminalization of sex work . These include a global analysis of laws that increase risk of HIV amongst vulnerable populations including sex workers which called for the repeal of laws prohibiting adult consenting sex work and its purchase. The World Health Organisation also called for the decriminalization of sex work as an essential measure to reduce HIV risk and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International also began to consider supporting decriminalization of sex work to address the discrimination and rights violations faced by sex workers globally.
Following SANGRAM’s intervention, in 2013 the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women submitted her report to the UN in which she underscored the need to address the violence faced by women in sex work from state and non – state actors. The Special Rapporteur recommended a review of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 that de facto criminalizes sex work; to ensure that measures to address trafficking in persons do not overshadow the need for effective measures to protect the human rights of sex workers.
In India, following SANGRAM’s intervention with the Justice Verma Committee on amendments to the Criminal Law in 2013; the Committee clarified and observed that its recommendations on trafficking were in no manner to be interpreted to apply to adult consenting sex workers and their clients. These positions mark a new phase in the understanding of sex work, a departure from the paradigm of sex work as abuse and sexual exploitation and instead embracing the centrality of human rights for all.
Women’s groups and anti-trafficking organizations who have favoured the abolitionist position on sex work , began extensive campaigns especially targeting the UN protesting these new developments, stating that this would jeopardize efforts to promote gender equality and undermine efforts to stop sex trafficking. The campaigns called on the UN agencies to stop efforts to decriminalize sex work, forcing UNAIDS to retract its position and state that “it was not advocating for decriminalisation of pimping or brothel ownership”. Withdrawal of their paper on decriminalization of sex work by Amnesty International is yet another example of the backlash.
There has been considerable momentum towards adopting the Swedish Model, with some sections of women’s groups and anti-trafficking activists stating that it was the only way to tackle trafficking for sexual exploitation. The idea of criminalization of demand and “spare the victims” is fast gaining ground.
South Asian countries are also impacted by these global developments. In Nepal, sex workers reported that the provisions of the 2007 legislation were being used to arrest clients. With the use of condoms as evidence during arrests, violence against sex workers in Nepal remained a crucial concern. In Sri Lanka the uncertain political environment further accentuated the violence on sex workers with very few avenues for collective expression and redress. In Bangladesh, 2013 and 2014 saw sex workers being evicted from brothels which had been in existence for decades. Despite numerous campaigns, rallies and international pressure, the government of Bangladesh was seen as being reluctant to act against the “religious factions” who led the forced evictions. Over a thousand sex workers were evicted in two separate incidents.
In India, a call for legalizing sex work by academicians and activists in early July 2014 led to tremendous backlash from women’s groups and anti-trafficking NGOs and a renewed call for criminalisation of demand. This to a great extent also impacted the ongoing process of review undertaken by a Supreme Court Panel, under directions from the Supreme Court to provide recommendations for a life of dignity consistent with the Constitution of India. The National Commission for Women also backed the demand for legalizing sex work, further complicating the debate by the end of November 2014.
It is against this background that the emergent SWASA initiative needs to be understood. Given the hostile environment providing a backdrop in South Asia, SANGRAM and its partners worked through the year with women’s groups, panels, committees, activists, wrote articles and deposed before commissions to highlight the right to choice.
The first SWASA inception meeting was conducted in Delhi on April 7-8, 2014 to articulate the vision of the initiative and to discuss how to come together in their countries and at the regional level to strengthen the sex worker rights movement in South Asia. Mentorship, training, submission to international treat bodies, tribunals, and alliance building efforts were rolled out in each of the partner countries.
Strategies for change
A three-pronged initiative will be undertaken at the regional level:
Strengthening Sex Worker Leadership, Perspectives on sex work, Mechanisms to address exploitative practices and developing evidence from the ground: This initiative envisages the active leadership of sex workers in partnership with sex workers rights activists. A mass-based movement with articulate leadership is the bedrock of any effort to seek a change in the existing scenario. Using the process of collectivization and peer to peer exchange, the initiative will attempt to strengthen the perspectives of sex workers in country and across the region. Replicating the model of the VAMP Institute, by building community resistance by community-led learning processes for knowledge sharing and for effective solutions. Sex workers are enabled to organize, educate themselves, gather evidence, plough back community learning’s and build allies across social movements in their quest for justice.
Building alliances with other rights movements for the articulation of a broader rights framework: Sex work intersects with the concerns of women’s movements and sex workers will have to build alliances and dialogues with networks working with migration and safe mobility, undocumented and documented worker unions, health and human rights, queer movements and dalit movements, media professionals among others. The SWASA Alliance built in the region will be strengthened under the proposed initiative.
Using local research to generate evidence for Strengthening Articulation of Rights and Access to Justice at the national, regional and international level: Members of the national networks, federations and collectives will undertake research at their local and national level to communicate their experiences of violence, harassment, misuse of existing laws in their countries. These will be used at the regional and international level by the SWASA Alliance to build awareness amongst treaty bodies (CEDAW, UPR, etc.) government agencies and commissions. The allaince will also advocate with the government to implement these recommendations.