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Sex workers not to be treated like criminals anymore

August 28, 2007

Incidents of dowry, domestic violence and sati easily grab the headlines…and these are usually the focus of the legislative reform. Therefore it was good to read that the ministry of women and child development (WCD) has planned to bring about legislative reform in the law concerning commercial sex workers. An amendment in the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act of 1956, and Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002 will mean that sex workers will not be treated like criminals.

No, prostitution is not going to get legal, but sex workers will be looked upon sympathetically, and treated as victims. But the pimps, customers, brothel owners and those who traffic women will feel the heat of the law. The government arrived at this formula as a compromise between the harshness of the present law in India and the soft approach taken by many developed countries, where prostitution is legal.

How does the world treat its prostitutes?
Prostitution is legal in Netherlands and Germany and so are brothels. In the Netherlands, the minimum age for prostitutes is 18 (16 for clients), although the age of consent for sex otherwise is 16. Pimping is illegal. In Germany, prostitution is legal as well and the minimum age for prostitutes and their clients is 16, but a girl under the age of 18 cannot be admitted into a brothel. Pimping is illegal.

In the UK, prostitution is not illegal, but street prostitution, brothels and pimping are all illegal. In most of America prostitution is illegal, and in Canada although prostitution itself is legal, pimping, negotiating in a public place and other such activities are illegal.

In Turkey, only street prostitution is illegal, and prostitutes can operate otherwise, with a licence.

Interestingly, in Thailand, prostitution is technically illegal. However, as the law turns a blind eye to prostitution, people often assume that it’s legal. The fact that certain ‘special services’ are legal helps those in the industry.

In an overwhelming majority of countries where prostitution is legal, pimping is not and this helps prevent the exploitation of women.

So what’s the Indian situation?
It is believed that a very high percentage of prostitutes in India are coerced into prostitution, due to the poverty in the country. They are often sold by their own relatives when they are barely in their teens or get into it because they face starvation. Also, many women in destitute ‘homes’ are forced into selling themselves for return ‘favors’.

An overwhelming number of women in India who enter this trade are victims and often become sex slaves. Why, out of nearly three million sex workers in India, 40 per cent are below the age of 18!

Ofcourse, human trafficking is a problem the world over, whether prostitution is legal or not, but poor countries often land up being the suppliers. The constant movement of these young girls, who enter the profession at 12-15 of years of age and are shunted from brothel to brothel, country to country, is thought to be a factor in spreading the AIDS virus.

Prostitutes have always been at the receiving end
The new law will not stop the trafficking and nor will it go to the root cause of this problem…but hopefully it will ensure that prostitutes do not face harassment at the hands of the police. A study by eminent sociologist Jean D’Cunha in Mumbai found that:

…the number of prostitute women arrested was disproportionately greater than the number of pimps, procurers and brothel-keepers arrested under the same laws…furthermore, the penalties imposed on prostitutes were far greater than the penalties imposed on the brothel-keepers or pimps.

This happens because brothel-keepers have a nexus with politicians and the police, and and prefer to let the girls bear the brunt of the law.

It is certainly time that the law became tough with the real criminals. Those who live off the earnings of prostitutes.

(Photo copyrighted to me)

Related Reading: Bar girls evicted from their homes

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2007 9:48 am


    A very well written post here.. I like the way you write detailed ones.. which are informative as well as topical!

    The true dimension of human trafficking around the world is very difficult for most lay people to understand. Thanks for bringing this issue up!


  2. B Chopra permalink
    August 28, 2007 10:41 am

    This is not an easy thing to handle for Govt.. Even men who buy are also focus for concern. Govt. has to continually reinvent, respond & rewrite law. There are lots of unintentional consequences which can be forseen by Govt.

    What govt. needs to consider is the ways in which prostitution can be handled without the creation of two-tiered system of Good and Bad prostitutes.

  3. August 28, 2007 11:58 am

    More kudos to Renuka Chowdhury, who I presume must have initiated this reform!

    If this really does break the nexus between brothel-owners, politicians, and the police, it will be great news. This will enormously benefit the numerous NGOs, who work for the benefit of these deprived women.

    I must note that in its present state, it is only a draft bill, yet to be approved by the Parliament. I only hope that the right wing parties do not oppose it in the name of ‘encouraging and promoting prostitution’ in our sacred country!

    Also, virtually all portraits of prostitution in India focus on the deprived women who are forced into it. We musn’t forget the new class of well-to-do “call girls”, who are engaging rich customers to earn money on the side. They solicit customers using SMS networks and social networking sites, and are frequently college students staying away from their home. No picture of prostitution in India would be complete without them.

  4. August 28, 2007 12:33 pm

    Desh, thanks. 🙂
    Bharat, yes I agree that we should not attach morality to prostitution. Good or bad, who are we to judge? How can we be sure of the why?
    Mahendra, with Renuka at the helm I am sure the bill will go through! 🙂 And the reason why portaits of prostitution in India focus on the deprived is because they constitute the majority. Simple as that. Those girls you talk about are a small minority and the govt is less, if at all concerned about them. These girls are rarely trafficked and they are rarely kidnapped and they are rarely sex slaves. When laws are made, its always the main trend which is taken into consideration.

  5. Ramesh Natarajan permalink
    August 28, 2007 12:53 pm


    Though, the AIDS level in India is reducing now, (Sharp drop in India Aids Level). by absolute numbers, it is still high : 2.5 million.

    Any initiative to protect the Sex Workers will be good. However, the society and social organizations should fully support the Government on such initiatives, to succeed.

    Ramesh Natarajan,
    Global Indian

  6. August 28, 2007 1:16 pm

    I have always believed that prostitution should be legal, as should gambling, betting, drugs and pornography.
    If you are a true defender of freedom, you will often have the distasteful task of defending the dregs of society, but that’s too bad. It has to be done. So, I say, more strength to prostitution, and higher pay for the cops, so that taking bribes will lose the instant attraction it commands.

  7. August 28, 2007 1:56 pm

    Ramesh, yep, social organisations are important and in fact even the police need to be trained to behave! Right now they are so entrenched in their own moralistic view that prostitutes are evil and meant to be treated badly, that its going to take some time for their attitude to change, even if the law changes.
    Rambodoc, prostitution they say is the world’s oldest profession. No one can stop it, so might as well accept it! If it not accepted, it will simply go underground.
    In any case only when a person is harmed should the law intervene.

  8. August 28, 2007 7:40 pm

    From my personal experience, the main problem in India, according to me (and not just limited to this issue), is the obnoxious tendencies of the society to desire that everyone conform to their belief system. India talks about unity in diversity, wherein the truth is that people do not have the tolerance for this unity.
    People here can’t stand differences in viewpoints. Everyone is too busy defining other’s moralities, not realizing that morality is a very dynamically relative term.

    it is absurd for a country of 1 billion + people to even think of making 1 uniform law for everyone. One great repercussion of this is in this issue:
    If there is a great bunch of people who demarcate prostitution as immoral, then they should endeavour to keep themselves away from it, rather than bang their heads and want that every single bloody person stays away from it.

    These people, often sitting in the confines of their homes, are completely insensitive towards the situation of these women which are driven to these means of earning a livelihood.

    And even if all of them don’t choose it circumstantially, it should be solely a verdict of a woman whether she wants to sell her body or not. Until the time a civilization doesn’t realize that they have no say in that matter, and that their moralities doesn’t imply the world should conform with them, it is irrelevant that India is spending its 61st independence day…because the truth is that the society hasn’t understood the most basic of tenets of living as a society.

  9. August 28, 2007 8:03 pm

    The moves to help those women and bring them back to normal life, with dignity, and the making sure that they are treated with dignity after they leave the present profession.. can be appreciated..

    but I am 100% against the move to give a whitelist them, and establish that they are professionals like any other man or women doing some other job…..

    prostitution is a criminal act and those who are in to that profession are criminals.. and should be treated so… but just like any normal convicts..

    I would agree if you say, society look with an “Ugly eye” when they r on the profession, convicted or after leaving it

  10. maliha11 permalink
    August 28, 2007 8:46 pm

    it is very sad to hear all this we come from the same side of the world and our countries some what face same kinds of problems, its not only women prostitutes its male prostitutes as well, these only a slight difference males in this profession are protected you don’t see many male(prostitutes) being arrested because they are much more protected and they only provide there services through a lot of high profile pimps .. i went to a private party one in Karachi and it was really sickening to see that there was a bunch of very attractive very handsome well groomed and very classy looking men about 10-15 sitting around an old women who had them all around her and it was very bizarre that we past by this party to say hello to a the DJ who was a friend, and when i saw that i was a bit curios why are all those men not dancing and just sitting around Mrs. Santa clause, he said that they are all prostitutes and thats there pimp sitting in the middle, but surprisingly he told me that not all those men are gay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    why shouldn’t they be locked up as well, at the end of the day women only get the bad name, for selling them selves, why would men be so protected in this matter and women be bare naked about it always

  11. August 29, 2007 7:52 pm

    Sati: Wait, you guys still DO that?

  12. August 29, 2007 7:59 pm

    Justin, this happens in a small pocket of India, in a region in the northwest of India. Instances are so uncommon but usually get full media attention. I guess you can call these instances very region specific. Evil never completely gets wiped out does it, wherever it is. Think of Sati like an evil cult which still has its devotees in one particular region.

  13. August 30, 2007 5:57 am

    I would hope this legislation passes. It seems to be a step in the right direction. This legislation would put the heat where it belongs: on the people who prey on prostitutes.

    I agree with you, Nita, that prostitution will never be eradicated. Yet, some things can be done to reduce its evils. All else being equal, the wealthier India gets, the fewer women and girls will be forced into prostitution for economic reasons. I read somewhere that prostitution is many times greater in countries that are poor than in countries that are wealthy.

    Ideally, I would see prostitution legalized, taxed and regulated. And the tax money used to ameliorate the ill effects of prostitution. Since it’s not going to go away, I think that’s the thing to do with it.

  14. August 30, 2007 11:25 pm

    Justin, I think sati is a deplorable activity that has no place in a society, and people who force women into it need to be punished. But I’m sure wherever you live, people also kill their spouses for money or personal gains, maybe not in the same manner. So, is your shock at the motivation behind the act (which is universal) or the manner in which that motivation expresses itself (which is India-specific)? 🙂

  15. August 31, 2007 7:15 am

    Amit, in India too hundreds of people kill their spouses for money or personal gain. India has a very incidence of murders, see my post here. Sati is entirely different because it is a society’s sanction of killing a widow…it is henious and sick because it is sanctioned by the society, and this often means the police in the area will not act.
    True, there are evils in ALL societies, and that includes western society, and I too feel hurt when westerners point out certain things which are bad in our society…but, one thing I do know, westerners (or should I say white people?), do admit the bad things in their society and they think of them as indefensible. For example when Haneef was detained in Aus without a valid reason, thousands of australians fumed. In India putting people behind bars without evidence is common and no one protests. You could also read the comments I got when I wrote about the racism against Shilpa Shetty!
    Anyway, I have diverted from the original subject!

  16. April 30, 2008 10:48 am

    great article..
    i wonder how people can misunderstand such well balanced and articulate arguments of yours… and i see this misunderstanding happening a bit too often.

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