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Supreme Court orders release of sex workers detained in protective homes under Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act

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The Supreme Court has ruled that adult sex workers, who were detained under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and were staying in protective homes, were free to move out as per their own will.

The Bench of Justice B.R. Gavai, Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Sanjay Karol on Thursday directed the state governments across the country to conduct surveys of such protective homes, where these sex workers were staying.

The Apex Court passed the orders on an interlocutory application filed by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a collective of 65,000 sex workers. The organisation had originally filed the IA in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to highlight the lack of access of sex workers to governmental schemes to distribute dry rations. 

In 2011, the top court of the country had taken suo motu cognisance of the rights available to and the conditions of sex workers in the country. The IA by DMSC was filed in this petition. 

Amicus Curiae and Senior Advocate Jayant Bhushan apprised the Bench that adult sex workers were being treated like criminals in most states and not being allowed to leave the protective homes, despite the Supreme Court’s directions to the contrary. 

Bhushan said that adult women wanting to leave could not be held against their will in these protective homes, which were acting like jails for these women. He further said that the states should not treat them in this patriarchal manner, forcing them to stay on the grounds of protection, even when the women were not willing to.

Appearing for the petitioner, Senior Advocate Anand Grover submitted that the women were being detained in these protective homes beyond three years against their will, which was also contradictory to the Apex Court directions on the matter.

The Bench further sought an update from the Centre on the status of a proposed bill on the prevention of trafficking and the rehabilitation of sex workers. 

The Apex Court observed that once this Act was enacted, many of the aspects would be taken care of. The Bench added that it also knew its limitations.

A committee had been formed by the Apex Court earlier to advise on issues relating to the prevention of trafficking, rehabilitation of sex workers wanting to quit and the conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with Article 21, which submitted its final report in 2016.

After the submission of the committee’s report, the Union government submitted in the Supreme Court that the committee’s recommendations were considered by the Centre and a draft legislation has been formulated. After this, the Union of India assured the Apex Court a number of times that a comprehensive legislation would soon be passed. 

In 2022, a Bench headed by Justice (retired) L. Nageswara Rao issued a slew of directions for the rehabilitation of sex workers, noting that till the proposed legislation was finally enacted by the Parliament, these directions would ‘hold’ the field.

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