Re-negotiating Gender Justice : A Critique of Sex-Workers’ Rights in India
Ray, Nupur (2014). 'Re-negotiating Gender Justice : A Critique of Sex-Workers' Rights in India' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.
Contemporary discourse in liberal theory is preoccupied with two concerns: first
identification/construction of secular moral foundational principles that could guide
political structures, independent of any conception of good life or community goals
and untenable imposition of morality on individuals (RaymondPlant) secondly
determination of the nature of political institutions ( AmartyaSen) that could give
maximum freedom to individuals to pursue their life goals for reasons they value.
These concerns emerged as a response to a persistent paradox in liberal theory. It
is that inspite of its all 'inclusive' paradigm that values freedom of each individual in
leading her life, irrespective of identities with a commitment to 'formal equality', it
has not been able to address vertical and horizontal forms of structural inequalities
in social/political and economic spheres, leading to politics of exclusion for many
vulnerable individuals and groups. This exclusion is mainly in three ways: access to
resources/ opportunities /information in society, participation at crucial stages of
political process like decision-making and objectification of the subject in intellectual discourses.
Currently three significant trends are transforming the nature of political theory:
1) Shift from individual-based claims to group-based claims like gender, ethnicity,
caste, race, religion, sexual preference etc, based on 'differentiated' conception of
citizenship(Young) which recognizes (rather than stigmatizes their identities) and
which accommodates (rather than excludes) their difference' (Kymlicka) with a
simultaneous expansion of demand for civil and political rights to social and cultural
rights, coined as 'multiculturalism', 'politics of recognition', or 'identity politics'.
2) A growing consensus and assertion among political thinkers to recognize the
principle of equality as the basis of social and political policy (Kymlicka) in order to
facilitate equitable distribution of resources for all especially historically
3) Women's issues and rights for gender equality in different societies are being
linked to human right movements (Jaggar and Young) that have led to divisive
stands in the feminist movement. On the other hand, there is more emphasis on
questioning the gender inequality in private realm of family by raising issues of
sexual abuse, 'invisible' face of women's work, reproductive rights,
domestic violence, authoritative distribution of responsibilities in family etc.
These trends have altered the context and content of debates in the rights discourse
questioning its foundations and leading to unpredicted contradictions. Liberal
theorists are grappling with issues of competing and conflicting claims between
individual rights and group rights; between different identity-based group rights
confronting each other like ethnicity, religion, caste, class, regionalism; and minority
and majority demands. The complexity of rights further becomes paramount for
groups like sex-workers whose identities are unstructured and questionable.
The debate on Prostitution in India in terms of its recognition and thus the demand
for the rights of sex-workers as 'sex-workers' has exposed critical aspects of
women's freedom of choices on livelihood options and the vulnerabilities
associated with those choices in different ways , invoking larger issues in gender
justice. The arguments in favour of sex-workers rights and against such recognition
involve serious questions of sexual violence, reproductive health rights, violation of
human rights, human trafficking, the problem with commodifying sex, right to dignity
and issues regarding choice and agency of women challenging each other.
The main objective of this paper is to critically analyze the rights discourse on sex-
work in India from the perspective of social justice and gender justice in particular
and to explore whether a framework of rights can reduce the vulnerabilities
and lack of choice for women involved? The main question is would recognition of
sex-worker's rights lead to empowerment of women in Prostitution, thereby creating
conditions of gender justice as a larger goal.
The paper has mainly three broad sections: In the first, I discuss the main
approaches to sex-work and to the demand for its legalization in an international
context focusing on the Indian case. Secondly, I draw upon four contours or sites of
contestation for women in Prostitution Body, Agency, Sexuality and Market, where
the dilemmas and contestations on social justice become acute. In the third section
I wish to explore that whether Martha Nusbaum's list of capabilities would provide an
adequate framework within which gender justice for women in Prostitution could be
renegotiated or reconstructed?
Is the framework of rights sufficient to understand and resolve questions on social
justice in general and gender justice in particular for women in Prostitution or we
need to move beyond the language of rights and reconstrsuct ideas of agency and
choice in the liberal discourse?