New Delhi: Delhi Commission for Women’s chairperson Swati Maliwal’s equating prostitution with rape and calling it a ‘blot’ on the society that needed to be eradicated with a strong response by the state, has not gone down well with sex worker networks and women’s rights activists. Strongly criticising her remarks, the groups have called Maliwal “blatantly ill-informed and bigoted” and claimed that her comments have impacted the dignity of those engaged in sex work.
Thirty-year-old Maliwal, selected for the post by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, made the comments at the ‘National Consultation on Human Trafficking on Indo-Nepal Border: Post Earthquake Perspective’ organised by the NGO PAIRVI on Tuesday. Referring to the scale of monthly distribution of condoms in the red light area of G.B. Road in her speech, Maliwal had observed: “Six lakh condoms means we are allowing six lakh rapes in Delhi.”
She had gone on to add that “the figure could be much more as the cases of minor girls are not reported. Strangely, I found that it is being accepted by people in a way. I have spoken to a lot of people about it after visiting G.B. Road, and they said if you get the red light area closed, rapes will increase. I condemn such a mindset.”
Responding to Maliwal’s statement, the National Network of Sex Workers and Women’s Organisations in India demanded that she immediately withdraw her statement and tender an unconditional apology to all women engaged in sex work, whose dignity has been impacted by her observations.
According to a statement signed by nearly 30 representatives of sex workers’ and women’s organizations, “The Supreme Court has recognized the need to ensure that sex workers are able to live a life of dignity. The Court set up a panel to discuss ‘Conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution.’ (Budhadev Karmaskar vs. Government of West Bengal).”
The statement further called upon The Chairperson of DCW to “do her homework before launching into a campaign that has not engaged with the ongoing debates and dialogues to recognize the rights of adult consenting workers to remain in sex work and ensure that their human rights and dignity are protected.” The statement further added that “such a short sighted and uninformed perspective demeans the office of a Commission set up to protect the rights and dignity of women.”
The statement further points out that “Such uninformed statements from people in positions of authority have the effect of negatively impacting the HIV response,” and wondered how Maliwal could “forget the immense contribution of the sex workers in reducing HIV transmission in this country?”
The women organisations have also noted that the United Nations, and various human rights organisations, activists globally and in India have called for an end to the conflation of trafficking and sex work, which criminalises and stigmatises women in sex work.
“At a time when human rights movements, UN, Governments and civil society is moving towards a more rights based approach to sex work, this statement of a Commission that is required to uphold the rights of dignity of women, is truly condemnable!” their statement said.
However, Maliwal remains combative as ever in the face of such criticism. Talking to The Wire, she said: “I have met with a lot of NGOs and learnt that 98 per cent of the women who are brought here (the red light area of G.B. Road) are trafficked. They are being made to work for as low as Rs 50 per client. I just wanted to highlight this. This rape is unaccounted for and these women can’t even go to the police.”
“Many of the women are facing sexual assault on a daily basis. They narrated harrowing tales of the torture they had to go through. One NGO even informed me that a woman who had escaped from the area was caught at New Delhi Railway Station, brought back to the brothel and then thrown from its roof to the ground. She died but the matter went unreported.”
Though Maliwal’s comments appeared to have offended those already working in the sector, this may have been unintentional, considering that she had also pledged to work out all the problems of the residents of G.B. Road within three years. She had also announced that the DCW would soon form a Trafficking Committee to work in tandem with the Centre, State Government and NGOs on issues related to sex trafficking.
Maliwal has been eager to take up the cause of the sex workers from the start, and had first visited the G.B. Road area on July 22, just two days after she had been appointed DCW chief. But that time too following her visit to the area there was a huge furore over her appointment as the due consultation process for the appointment was allegedly not followed. It was almost 10 days later that her appointment was formalized by Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung, who is locked into a power struggle with the Kejriwal government.
Clarifying that she was not forcing anything on anyone, Maliwal said she was clear in her mind that as DCW chief she would work for improving the lot of the sex workers and trafficked women.“We will work on improving their life in consultation with them. I am willing to go the distance. Even if I am beaten up, that is okay, I will not stop. I will continue to work for these women and will keep visiting them.”