The Silver Lining on Red Light

The word ‘sex’ is considered taboo and brings shame to the people who dare to utter it. One can only imagine the social stigma attached to sex-work and the people involved in it. 

Though sex-work is not a criminal offense, but, under the  Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1986, (ITPA), brothel-keeping, living on earnings of a prostitute, procuring, inducing, or detaining a person for sex work, prostitution in areas near public places and soliciting are illegal. It only permits prostitutes to practice their occupation in private. Despite this, sex work is prevalent in the country on a very large scale. There are more than 1.5 million sex workers employed in India (First Post, 2021). There is always confusion between prostitution and sex-work. Prostitution is one of the occupations that come under the umbrella of sex work like other professions such as pornography, stripping, erotic dancing, pole dancing, and so on. 

Since sex work is stigmatised in society, sex workers have to face a lot of repercussions. They are denied basic human rights such as the right to access healthcare. Sex-workers cannot form an organisation and work in the way other sectors do because of social stigma, they also face violence and other social problems for which they cannot take legal help. Cases of police brutality and ignorance of the state cannot be ignored.

This article is aimed at looking at such aspects of their socio-economic setting and will propose some policies that could be useful to improve the living conditions and recognising them as any other person in the country. The questions that we will be dealing with are:

  1.  What kind of policy interventions (social security schemes) can you recommend to the government to destigmatise and recognise sex work to improve their living conditions? 
  2.  In terms of health and wellness (physically and mentally), what kind of policy prescriptions would help reduce the number of sex workers infected by HIV in the community?

 De-stigmatisation and recognition of Sex work

Due to lack of recognition and stigmatization of sex work, sex-workers are subjected to frequent abuse, exploitation by public authorities such as rape, assault, and violence inflicted by the police who neglects the NHRC guidelines specified for arresting of women, arbitarily detain sex workers and exhort fines under threat of physical violence (NAWO). Stigmatisation of sex work often isolates the sex workers from society, friends, and family, consequently preventing them from obtaining necessary health services, legal aid seeking justice against violence, and documentation for availing economic benefits from the state.

  • Decriminalising, legalising, and adequate recognition of sex work should be the first step that would help the sex workers avail policy benefits. For instance, sex workers have been recognised under the category of informal workers as “women at work” following the advisory of NHRC on “right of women”. (Gupta) 
  • On the basis of Sonagachi model of Kolkata, empowering the marginalised sex workers should be the aim by increased community participation such as inclusion of sex workers or sex work organisations in framing/amending policies, regulations etc for accurate planning, delegating project possessions to the community. (WHO)
  • Anti-discriminatory rules emboldening community-driven rights-based sex worker organisation to voice their grievances.
  • Abrogate laws that restrict adults to engage in buying and selling of sex, commercial sex, like the laws against the living on the earnings of prostitution and brothel-keeping.
  • Social Security schemes can be formulated based upon international models, for example, the German Prostitution law, the components of which include: (a) penalizing exploitation of sex workers (b) licensing and legalizing brothels which would encourage safe working conditions, use of condoms, and help avail other occupational and health services (c) demarcating prostitution zones with proper security, etc.
  • Educating sex workers regarding their rights as well as sensitizing the police officers, the justice system including lawyers, health service providers, and other state officials to improve the degraded condition of sex workers. Spreading awareness in the society is also vital in order to destigmatize sex work. 
  • Establishing special cells in the police department for the sex workers for efficient and smooth complaint registration. National Human Rights Instrument’s role should be strengthened so that there is a better response to complaints or that they initiate suo moto action reports of violence and rights violations by state and non – state actors against sex workers.
  • Free Legal Services could be provided especially in rural areas by lawyers who have been trained in issues faced by sex workers.
  • There is a difference between human trafficking and adults choosing an occupation for themselves, they should not be mixed under the purview of the law. Children and forced people should get justice but adults who have chosen the occupation should not be penalised. 
  • Sex workers should have the right to privacy while approaching law enforcement and the judiciary for redress in cases of sexual assault, exploitation, and violence so that they are not threatened or sceptical about getting justice. Skills and sensitivity should be ensured in dealing with women, persons who identify as women, and transgender women in sex work. 

Sex Workers and Health: 

  • Physical Health: 

Sex workers are kept at fringes of the society, because their work doesn’t gain legitimacy in both organised and unorganised labour. Their activity is prohibited and stigmatised as its goes challenges the heteronormative order of a patriarchical society. HIV/STI prevalence rates among Female Sex-Worker (FSW) populations and their clients are usually higher than the general population, to combat the challenges to their physical health, the following measures can be taken:

  • State-wise HIV awareness programmes.
  • Sensitizing the doctors and the police force regarding sex work.
  • Establishment of free clinics and healthcare centres for regular check-ups.
  • Health insurances for the sex workers as well as their children
  • Distribution of contraceptives and educating them regarding their proper usage.
  • Creating HIV/AIDS coordination committees, which would include government officials from the development sector, the police department, as well as sex workers and PLWHAs (people living with HIV/AIDS).
  • Following the Sonagchi Model, personnel should be trained in terms of cultural sensitivity for HIV, STDs, and sexual health issues of the sex workers.(Basu and Weiss)
  • Lack of formal education, financial constraints, and poverty make them ignore their health during menstruation. According to a study conducted by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DSMC), 40% of sex workers use cloth pads during menstruation. A strong menstrual hygiene education programme emphasising the use of sanitary napkins should be conducted in the red-light districts. (Gunjan Khadria)
  • Free distribution of sanitary napkins should be undertaken by NGOs.
  • Removal of taxes on condoms and sanitary napkins would allow the workers to purchase these necessary items instead of viewing them as “luxury”
  • Like in Germany, sex workers in India should have received regular access to health insurance and bi-annual health counseling should be introduced. Mandatory use of condoms coupled with counseling would imply that sex workers need to take care of their own health.
  • Sex education programme designed for sex workers and their children, so that they know about their bodily rights, the functioning of the reproductive system, and the value of consent.
  • Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being:

In a country like India, where mental health and sex work both are stigmatised, access to mental healthcare facilities becomes more than difficult for sex workers. A study by Reny Ranjan from NIMHANS shed light that 73.3% of women in sex workers have suicidal tendencies while a 2008 study shows that majority of women engaged in sex work suffer from depression.

  • The community needs a safe environment to overcome its fear of stigma and discrimination.
  • Mental health counseling sessions by trained and sensitized psychiatrists.
  • Following suit of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, sex workers should be trained by psychiatrists to identify symptoms of mental health disorders and initiate early-stage counseling.
  • Sex workers refined, assertive, dignified, agile, and flexible array of mental health services that are available to them at various centres — through technology-enabled mediums like phones, in-person interactions in safe spaces like community organisations, or drop-in centres of targeted intervention programmes, or navigation support in mental health institutes and district hospitals.


The above-mentioned policies can only take their course when sex work is recognized as work and sex workers as regular workers. Our clouded view of sex and sexuality, coupled with patriarchy makes us dehumanise sex workers. Therefore, the first step which one needs to take for the upliftment in the red-light districts is to respect and recognise, the sex worker’s labour in the labour force. 


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Beatti, Bhattacharjee, Ramesh, Gurnani, Anthony, Isac. Mohan, Ramakrishnan, Wheeler, Bradley, Blanchard, and Moses. “Violence against female sex workers in Karnataka state, south India: impact on health, and reductions in violence following an intervention program.” BMC Public Health. 2010,

 “East and Southern Africa Region Evidence Brief: What works to prevent HIV among Sex Workers.” United Nations Population Fund. 2021,

 “Global Mapping of Sex Work Laws”. nswp: Global Network of Sex Projects. 2020,

Gupta, Nishtha. “Why must we recognise sex work as ‘work’?” The Leaflet : Constitution First, 6 Nov. 2020,

 “Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers: Practical Approaches from Collaborative Interventions.” World Health Organisation. 2013,

 “Map of Sex Work Law.” Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme. 2020, 

National Alliance of Women India. India 4th and 5th NGO Alternative Report on CEDAW. Jul. 2014,

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Sengupta, Shrirupa. “Mental Health of Women Sex Workers Can’t be Ignored Anymore.” TheQuint, 10 Oct. 2019, 

Trust, Missing Link. “Tracing the history of Prostitution and sex trafficking in India” YouthKiAwaaz. 4 November. 2020, 

Vekatesh, Janani. “COVID-19 leaves sex workers more vulnerable; govts must go beyond SC order to ensure ration, expand social security.” Firstpost, 27 Oct. 2020,

“Why Sex Work should be Decriminalised?” Human Rights Watch. 7 Aug. 2019,



The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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