Prostitution in India

India has the largest market for prostitution in South Asia, with Mumbai alone being home to over 100,000 prostitutes. According to the Human Rights Watch report, 15 million prostitutes of varied age groups, live and work in India.

Is Prostitution Legal?

As per the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, prostitution is legal in India. However, soliciting sex, owning or operating brothels and pimping are illegal. What this essentially means is that a woman is free to use her body for material gains; however, she cannot work under a pimp or work in a brothel with other sex workers. Also, any person employing prostitutes or operating brothels are offenders of the law.

A brothel is a place where a group of sex workers live and entertain clients. A pimp is someone who lives off the earnings of the prostitute, by either operating a brothel or accommodating and living with them.

Despite the existing law, prostitution occurs illegally – in an organized form – through brothels and pimps.

Why Prostitution?

Most women who enter the prostitution industry don’t do so voluntarily. Indian culture looks down at the idea of selling one’s body for money or other material gains. Most women are forced into the industry for a variety of reasons – the most common being poverty. A woman from a poor family, usually illiterate and with no skills to find a job chooses  to enter this profession. For such women, an accidental encounter with a pimp is an opportunity to supplement the meager family income or to educate their children. At times, poverty stricken parents sell their daughters to brothels in exchange for money. They think their girls would have a better life at a brothel – at least better than the life they lead at home.

Some women are lured into the job by dishonest relatives, friends, boyfriends and husbands. Since brothels buy women for money, acquaintances and lovers lure women on promises of marriage or jobs and sell them to brothels.

Women, whose mothers, sisters or other close friends or relatives are in the profession, are quite likely to become prostitutes themselves.

The Trafficking Process

Every year, thousands of Nepalese girls and women are trafficked illegally across the Indo-Nepal border. Girls as young as nine year olds are bought for 1000 to 50,000 Rupees. Trafficking girls is rampant because the police fall for the money as well as offer to visit the brothel free of cost.

Similarly, poor girls begging on roadsides in various cities of India are rounded up and taken to brothels.

At the brothel, they are subjected to a tutorial where they are taught how to keep their clients happy, and are also exposed to various kinds of pornographic content. They are  repeatedly raped by the pimps if they do not agree to get in the trade consensually. Girls who don’t cooperate and refuse to have sex are subjected to brutal, inhumane treatment. They are manhandled, tied up and hit, tortured, locked up in dark windowless chambers for days without food and water, and raped repeatedly until they give in.

Life in a Brothel

Brothels normally consist of several rooms or chambers, with grilled windows, where women are locked up. It is a distressing sight, with women caged behind bars, with men looking into each chamber to find the woman they like best. The brothels look like shacks – dark, melancholy, dirty and airless.

Each girl has a different story of how she was trapped. These girls still bear the scars of her torment. Here is the story of a teenage girl, Kalpana, who was trafficked to Mumbai and sold to a brothel there. At the age of 14, she was drugged by an acquaintance. She was tricked into drinking a cup of tea that was laced with a drug, and when she regained consciousness she was on a train to Mumbai. At Mumbai, she was sold to a pimp; she doesn’t know for how much, thou. She was starved, beaten, and gang-raped until she gave in. Her one-year old daughter was taken away from her and she has no idea what happened to her. At the age of 17, her life took a turn when one of her clients fell in love with her. He managed to rescue her and the couple subsequently got married. But till today she hasn’t got any news of her baby.

Five to six years is the average work life of a sex worker, after this period she is too exhausted or diseased to work, or she has had children of her own.

The Government’s Attitude

If there is any community that requires the government’s assistance and rehabilitation, it is the prostitute’s community. It is a sad fact but women are forced into the profession and imprisoned at brothels. It is incorrect to prosecute and punish a woman for working in a brothel, though it is illegal, because most women aren’t there out of their own free will. However, pimps and people involved in the trafficking process should be heavily penalized and punished.

The Supreme Court recently asked the Central Government as to why prostitution shouldn’t be legalized. It said, “If you can’t get rid of it, why not legalize it?” Legalization of prostitution is a debatable and ongoing controversy in India.

However, it helps to remember that prostitution has flourished as an industry for so many years despite being illegal. Legalizing it, on the one hand, could push more women as well as pimps to enter the business. On the other hand, legalization gives the government and police authorities more control over the brothel’s activities; it may be possible to ensure that only women who want to work voluntarily are employed there, and that they receive payment, without being exploited or beaten. Also, women who have been forced into the business need to be rescued and rehabilitated.

The need of the hour is to stop trafficking, because trafficking is a major cause of prostitution. 80 per cent prostitutes are trafficked or forced into the business. So let us all join hands to get rid of this social evil.

Harshini Shankar

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