Sex-workers defying patriarchy and challenging state reform and rehabilitation projects in Indi...

Shriya Patnaik

Despite the prostitution industry being accorded a semi-legal status in India, the status of sex-workers remains abysmal with scarce provisions towards healthcare, education/literacy and/or labour rights. Consequently, the current approach to the rights of sex-workers is ridden with several structural barriers, as existing state reform projects often violate subjects’ bodily autonomy and act as moral discipliners, leaving them vulnerable to forms of systemic and institutionalised violence. Notwithstanding such exclusions, there have been strong feminist undercurrents advocating for the inclusion of such marginalised actors. One such example is the DURBAR NGO in Kolkata comprising of many sex-workers, calling for the legalisation of the prostitution industry as its underground nature enhances networks of crime, and simultaneous workers’ stigmatisation. DURBAR workers actively champion for their rights as equal citizens, and instead critique state regulation projects that seek to morally discipline them rather than providing concrete emancipation strategies or skill development. This article analyses such modalities of resistance through local channels of grassroots organisation, performative culture, and collective action. Reliant on such accounts from the margins, it elucidates how such bottom-up accounts of mobilisation, epitomise significant catalysts of agency and social change, which otherwise go missing from the dominant annals of policy and developmental discourses.