When I studied Romeo and Juliet, I remember the line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” being used in the context of social discrimination. This line has been misquoted and also used in jest. A recent decision by the Chief Justice of India brought this famous Shakespearean quote back to memory.

For ages nomenclature and being politically correct has been debated. I have struggled with using the word sex worker since work by definition should increase the value of the person engaged and also means that work is entered into voluntarily. A bonded worker is certainly an oxymoron. Sex work (prostitution) certainly does not increase the value of the person and more often than not is never entered into voluntarily. Studies have shown that 60% of the women in prostitution entered prostitution when they were young girls. Certainly no element of choice. The remaining 40% who engaged in prostitution as adults, a majority of them were abducted or trafficked by strangers and family. There were those who engaged in prostitution since they saw no alternate solution to ease their economic poverty (a failure of the state agency). Using the word sex worker says – everyone engaged has chosen to be there which we know for a fact, through all the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, ITPA, cases and the law itself, is not true. It also says that it brings value to the person. If this statement is true, why are women in prostitution living on the fringes and in the shadow of society?

I am encouraged to hear that the Supreme Court’s handbook on combating gender stereotypes will have the term sex worker replaced by trafficked victim/survivor or woman engaged in commercial sex. This change does justice to women who were trafficked as minors and now continue since they have no employable skill and live in the only world they know. It does justice to those women who were homemakers and because of some economic or social oppression are engaged in commercial sex (prostitution) since they too have no other employable skill. Thank you Justice Chandrachud for being the voice of the voiceless and choosing to use terms that acknowledge the injustice they have suffered.

As much as names and nomenclatures are important, history has shown that the change in names alone does not change the experience of the oppressed. What can we do to remove the shame and rejection associated with their lives and personhood? They are still women and girls. They are like me, my sisters, my nieces, my girlfriends… They are wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, friends… The fragrance they emit is the same as I do. If I am a rose, so is everyone of my gender irrespective of their circumstances.

Stand up and speak about sex-trafficking. Teach your sons, nephews, friends and every male and female in your circle of influence that the human body is not an object to be used at will for the pleasure of others. Speak up against all gender based violence especially sexual violence against women. The body is made up of emotions, dreams, longings and desires, that sit at the core of every human being. When the body is physically broken through physical or sexual violence, the spirit gets crushed. In time the body will heal of its wounds but the spirit takes longer to get restored.

We invite you to change and challenge the perspectives that many still have about these women. We encourage you to speak up so that the spirit of victims and survivors rise and soar and they will come out of the shadows and enjoy and thrive in the light.

Catherine Raja,
National Director
Freedom Firm