The 21-year-old daughter of a sex worker was seen endorsing the idea of legalisation of sex trade in India on a national TV channel debate show few days back. Her mother, then just 13, was trafficked and forced to step into flesh trade. Her entire life was spent in serving others with her own body. Now the daughter says, “Yes it should be legalised so that sex workers can secure their own and their children’s lives. No sex worker wants her children to have an insecure future. Let’s make it clear and be open to accept the fact that we are into the trade and make our both ends meet. It’s a service which we are paid for.”
In the course of doing this report, this correspondent met a young man in his early 20s. He had visited a sex worker the previous day in East Delhi area. He was surprised that a lady in her 40s was into this trade for last several years. “She attends her customers during first half of the day when her two children are in school. She attends to customers at her own two-room flat. She is into the trade just to complement her earnings and send her children to school as she is a single mother. She is nervous over the legalisation issue because she can’t disclose her identity as a sex worker.”
Keeping these two totally different cases in mind, National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam’s stand to legalise prostitution needs discussion and debate. NCW chief has said she is strongly in favour of legalising prostitution. She said it would lead to easier control of the situation in which paid sex takes place. It would lead to better working conditions for sex workers as well as protect their health. But statistics suggest that there are millions of women in India who are not full timer into the trade. They just do it part time to complement their earnings and are mostly poor. Besides, a social stigma associated with the trade, it may also prohibit women from coming out and using the proposed legal structure.
What does legalisation mean?
Tripti Tondon, a young woman in her 30s, associated with Lawyers Collective — an organisation working for HIV infected sex workers, questions, “First and foremost, one needs to know what kind of legalisation NCW is looking for. Does it mean decriminalising sex work is legalisation? Or with decriminalisation, adding more laws which may require licensing or registrations to regulating body? Right now, first thing which needs to be done is remove criminalisation from soliciting by prostitutes or running brothels. We can’t run from one extreme model to another extreme model of legalisation. We need to go step by step.” She goes on to add, “We must think if we are really ready for legalising this trade. The country is not ready for such a radical measure. Majority of the sex workers are not full timers in this trade. They do it to supplement their income some times. Even their families are not aware of this. So when they will be asked to get registered, I think they will oppose legalisation and those without registration will be criminalised by the law. So it’s going to be a troublesome.”
Sunitha Krishanan, who was gang-raped by eight men when she was just 15, runs a rehabilitation home Prajwala in Hyderabad and is now a known anti-trafficking activist. She disagrees with NCW chief’s view on legalisation. “Running one of the largest rehabilitation homes in the country I have lived and worked closely with over 12,000 women and children removed from prostitution. And one conclusion I have reached which is reinforced everyday by the women and children I am engaged with is that ‘prostitution is the oldest form of sexual slavery’.”
No woman, no child, no human being deserves to be there. And no woman, child or human being will opt to be there if not for some compulsion or other. The compulsion could be economic or psychological. Poverty, however, is no more the only reason for being in the trade. You are as much aware of the situation inside any brothel be it in a red light area or a apartment/hotel/lodge/resort that is being used as a brothel, what is the condition of the girl inside a closed room with a customer. You are also aware that the trade does not happen independently by a woman or child, there is a pimp/agent, broker, brothel manager who sustain and manage the trade. If that is the fundamental of the trade what are we endorsing when we say “legalising prostitution”.
Will it help sex-workers?
Kumaramangalam’s view has got support from former NCW chief Mamta Sharma. Abha Singh, prominent activist and lawyer, went further and had said that incidents of rape in Mumbai are lesser because of the presence of ‘several red light areas’ in the city, which provide an outlet to millions of migrant workers, whose needs have to be taken care of.
There might be substance to this argument. With the closure of brothels in 1959, Queensland, in Australia, experienced a 149% increase in incidents of rape. Sex workers are the most marginalised members of society. They need protection and help. Legalising the profession has multiple benefits.
“Anyone who has worked with sex workers knows they are normal people with normal needs. They want bank accounts and schools for their children. They are exploited by pimps, abusive clients and, of course, the police. They have nowhere to turn to because what they do is illegal and considered morally reprehensible by the same society which uses them. Legalising prostitution would mean that pimps and brothel owners would be held accountable for the treatment of sex workers and that abused sex workers would have the option of turning to the law for protection,” had commented another Delhi-based women activist Sarita Singh.
While discussing an interesting model Tripti shared, “New Zealand is an interesting model. There is no criminalisation and all other laws are applied to sex workers. There is a true incident in which a sex worker sued her brothel manager for physical harassment. The manager was behind bars after found guilty of forcing sex worker to have sex with him and of passing lewd remarks. So that sets a precedent on how sex workers can use their rights despite the stigma associated with their profession.”
Trafficking will get boost?
Barely two days after NCW chief’s comment came, Supreme Court panel member Ravi Kant made it clear he would not support the move to legalise the trade. In Kant’s opinion, every right that an average woman and Indian citizen have is available to sex workers as well. So why demand legalised work status for sex work? He believes it will lead to a host of problems, including increased trafficking of women and young children from small, remote impoverished villages. “Thailand, for instance, has to get girls from Cambodia and Myanmar to keep the trade going,” he was quoted saying so. Kirti Singh, noted lawyer on women’s issues and member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, was also quoted as saying, “Most women in the trade didn’t become sex workers out of choice. They come in at very young ages and in most cases it is pure exploitation. If we legalise sex work this exploitation and trafficking will happen openly.”
The view from within the community — estimated at about 50 lakh — is all for legalising prostitution. Bharati Dey, president of the All India Network of Sex Workers, was also quoted saying, “Legalisation will mean regulation.” Dey, who also heads Durbar, a Kolkata-based body of sex workers with 70,000 registered members that is represented on the SC panel, has spent the last two decades lobbying for legalising sex work which she says will reduce trafficking by nixing the police-trafficker-malkin nexus.
Besides, Tripti also informed, “We have found that sex workers themselves are taking initiatives to keep a tab on who is coming from where. They keep a close eye on minor girls being trafficked. In West Bengal we have seen how sex worker’s initiatives can help. Number of girls rescued from West Bengal was much higher than that by the police. But here when a sex workers’ group rescues illegally trafficked girls, police get hold of them citing the law. So at this point in time legalisation of sex work will certainly not encourage trafficking but yes we must ponder over the fact that our country is not ready for legalising the trade as of now. May be in the future people will accept it.”
Current system degrades women
Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi-based lawyer who is associated with Kailash Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan, adds that, “Under Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) Section 8, there is provision that no women can be arrested. Still there are cases of women being arrested. 2,500 cases filed in 2013 and many of these pertained to sexual crimes.” Tripti also adds, “Now the current law portrays sex workers sometimes as criminals and sometimes victims. That’s another problem. When police raid any brothel, they round up every one including those women who are into the trade for decades and doing it with their own will. Police portray them as victims and produce before the magistrate. After that they are dumped into the Nari Niketan centres which are worse than jails. Even the Supreme Court has made an observation that these centres are worse than jail where no one from family, friends or lawyers can meet the inmate. The new law should provide an alternative to this problem.”
While going against the idea of legalising the sex trade, Sunitha goes on to suggest, “Government must devise a comprehensive exit plan for existing women in prostitution to leave the trade. This can be done by a multi-stakeholder convergence of all departments. The plan should not only look at economic options and civic identity it should also look at psychological support, de-addiction programs, life-skills, employability training. Plus, the most stringent implementation of ITPPA in its true spirit should be ensured. Besides, system should work to break the organised crime of sex trafficking on a war footing with not just rhetoric and platitudes but by committing resources and specialised personnel to fight it, like we do terrorism or narcotics. End of the day this is just not a social problem, it is a well-organised crime and we need to fight it accordingly.”
Points to ponder on
After prostitution was legalised in Netherlands it is estimated that between 1996 and 2001 the number of children in prostitution increased by over 300% going from 4,000 to 15,000 and that 5,000 of these children were trafficked from other countries.
Not a single country across the world where prostitution is legalised has reported even a marginal decrease in crimes against women or children.
Most studies across the world with women in prostitution indicates a high percentage of physical injuries/abuses and psychological disorders ranging from verbal abuses, traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorders and mood disorders.
Following legalisation of prostitution in Victoria, Australia, although the number of legal brothels doubled, the greatest expansion was in illegal prostitution and within one year (1999) there
was a 300% growth of illegal brothels (Sullivan and Jeffreys, 2001).
Most studies show that women in prostitution did not choose prostitution among a range of options such as medicine, law, teaching, nursing or politics. Their “options” were more in the realm of survival for themselves and their children.
Over 70% women in prostitution and children across the world were initiated into prostitution when they were less than 14 years of age.
Not a single person in prostitution can control any transaction in the trade. The person must do what the buyer wants to do. Research across the world shows that most women in prostitution report being subjected to acts that include burns with cigarettes, slashes with blades, being tied to bedposts, bodily mutilated, gang rape, sadism and various forms of sadomachoism.
Most prostituted women and children have little or no bargaining power on condom usage. Reports from across the world indicates that men would not hesitate to pay more for sex without condoms.
More than 50% of prostituted women in countries where prostitution is legalised reported in a study that they did not think legal prostitution made them any safer from rape and physical assault (Farley et al.,2003).
As an exploitative industry prostitution is controlled by the procurer, pimp, broker and madams where the prostituted women has little or no stake in her earnings. Most studies report in the first three years of prostitution the person is in a debt trap paying up for the cost of her procurement.
Most prostituted persons are subjected to repeated abortions, substance abuse, alcohol addiction, recurrent STI and RTI and vulnerability of being physically and psychologically assaulted.
HIV/AIDS, STD’s, Cervical Cancer, TBI and all forms of psychological disorders are the health issues that can effect most women in prostitution.