In this blogpost, Harsha Asnani, student, NIRMA University, Ahmedabad, writes about the rights available to prostitute in India and how they are violated. The author also writes about the scenario in other countries and then analyzes the present situation in our country.
Prostitution in India is not a new age profession but as some people call it, is one of the oldest professions in the world. In the Indian scenario, prostitution has its roots in deep history. It started off in the 6th century with the emergence of a practice called Devdasi system which later on ritualized prostitution. According to it, young girls were married to deities and then sent to serve as prostitutes to the upper-caste community members. With the rise and fall of empires there have parallel changes to this practice but what has not changed in this profession is the gigantic outlook that it has acquired throughout ancient, medieval and modern India and the corresponding threats posed to the workers operating in this field.
Protection of prostitutes under the present law
In the present state of affairs the laws that regulate prostitution in India is Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956 (this was before amendment known as Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girl Act, 1956). It is the main statute dealing with prostitutes in India. One of the major protection that it gives to prostitute workers is firstly; it does not criminalise prostitution per se, and secondly, it punishes the acts of third parties such as middle men, brothel keepers, pimps, etc. who either facilitate this entire act or procure and live on the earnings of the prostitute workers. Since involvement in this sex trade makes the sex workers highly vulnerable to exploitation, hence the latter category of protection is held in a very high regard by the lawmakers. In furtherance to same-sex workers cannot solicit in public spheres but can practice their trade privately. In private spaces neither the workers nor the clients are held criminally liable or prosecuted.
Violation of rights of prostitututes
In spite of enactment of the above-mentioned legislations, there are not enough steps taken by the authorities in order to regulate the said profession. Firstly, although third party involvement is prohibited but a major problem arises when even organised prostitution is not allowed. Secondly, since these sex workers do not come under the ambit of labour laws, therefore they are not provided with adequate protection under the said laws. Thirdly, most of the girls brought under this profession are by force or through trafficking. There is no straightjacket mechanism through which if it is found that the element of free consent lacks then such persons who have caused this coercion can be sent to jail. All these factors lead to denial of basic human right as enshrined in the Constitution and various other Central Government Acts. One of the major reasons behind the emergence of these problems is that prostitution in India is not legal.
Sex workers are more of abused and less respected. Since the law does not recognise prostitution as a profession, therefore it is not possible to take such unfavourable clients to court. In the current system, prostitutes are not considered as bearers of rights. They are highly pimped and often raped. Most of the girls involved in this profession are forced into it. Such innocent and unsuspected women generally are forced into this sex trade before attaining the age of eighteen years. It is estimated that every hour, with four women and girls entering into prostitution in India, three of them do so against their will. After being sold, they get trapped into shady brothels, raped and forced to sleep or have unprotected sex with psychopaths who burn and bruise them. Anyone who tries to escape these prisons is brought back by use of force and tortured even more so as to set a deterrent example for other workers. Till the time they continue to serve in the brothels they are denied of all basic rights, for example, they neither do they have ration cards nor do they have a right to vote. They are forced to live in poverty and miserable living conditions. Lack of regulation and periodical medical tests causes the rampant spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV-AIDS. These brothel turned dungeons not only infects them with STDs but also other diseases such as cervical cancer or traumatic brain injury or psychological disorders etc. which do not find their cure for a very long period of time. After they grow old, they are thrown on the streets accompanied with no means to earn a shelter and bread and butter for rest of their lives. Being suppressed by societal norms and notions of morality, their voices remain unheard. This problem gets aggravated to a completely different level when these prostitutes are not even aware of the rights that are available to them.
In the recent times there has been an emerging trend of trafficking of child prostitutes in this profession. Such girls are not kept at one place for a long period of time. Instead they are shifted occasionally so as to avoid familiarity with customers and also to avoid police detention. At various instances, the money earned by the child workers is taken away by the middlemen leaving the labour of such child workers as unpaid.
The Indian laws have miserably failed to protect the prostitute workers and safeguard their rights. The Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA) 1986 although aims at removing the middlemen from this profession but its practical implementation has resulted in depriving the sex workers of their means of earning a livelihood. ITPA often goes against its stated purpose and instead of protecting sex workers it goes against them. In the name of “public interest,” prostitutes are evicted from their place of work or residence. The term public solicitation has been interpreted vaguely and as a result police officials have been known to accuse workers of solicitation and then demand bribes or free sex.
Societal exclusion and insecurity
Since prostitution is not recognised as a morally acceptable profession in India, therefore, a lot of stigmatization is experienced by those involved in the sex trade. These stigmas lead to marginalization and ultimately prevent the prostitutes from proper healthcare, education and, most importantly, the right to practice the business of making money from sex. Since police is also one among the perpetrators of this increasing crime against sex workers, so there is a minimal degree of safety and security available to them. Society considers prostitutes as involved in the morally corrupt profession and hence assumes that since they are guilty, so they deserve the violence committed on them.
These stigmas are not limited to the prostitutes but get carried down to their children as well, irrespective of the latter’s profession and lifestyles. There are several reports made by the children of prostitutes on account of persistent discrimination, ostracization, and isolation faced by them on account of their mother’s profession. They are embarrassed because of their mother’s lifestyles. All these factors have a direct and significant impact on their lives. Reports show their drop-out ratio has been considerably high. Further serious healthcare issues are shared by the sex workers with their blood line. Sexually transmitted diseases are often transmitted to the young ones of such prostitutes. Fear of ill-treatment by medical officers and establishments, illiteracy and ignorance, is a restraining force that prevents or makes it difficult for women from availing proper healthcare facilities, thus making it unlikely for them and their children to seek for preventive or curative care, resulting in lowering levels of health.
Since the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA) of 1986 has somewhere failed to achieve its objectives or aims that it had envisaged and due to increasing pressure over legalising prostitution several programs have been undertaken by the central government to tackle this issue. Among all initiatives, one of the major contributions made is by the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene. It works for rehabilitation and liberating prostitutes from the sex trade, controlling the STDs, creating a favourable public opinion, opening rescue homes and hospitals for the furtherance of its objectives.
In furtherance of the convention signed at Geneva for the suppression of immoral traffic in women and girls, an advisory committee was set up which recommended for enactment of a comprehensive legislation which would keep a check on prostitution, establishment of a special police force, special courts to look into human right violation of sex workers and their families etc. There have been multiple suggestions for legalising prostitution. But the question whether such legalisation would really result into overcoming the faults of the existing system or whether it would come up with its own unique problems affecting rights of sex workers remains unanswered. The success of legalisation of the commodification of women depends on upon the efficiency of prostitution licensing board or the Prostitution Control Board. In the experience of foreign countries, mixed observations have been reported. For some countries, it has been favourable whereas for the others such as Germany, New Zealand etc. it has hardly brought any positive or remarkable changes.
It is essential that the present status be changed and necessary steps be taken to ensure that Sex workers should enjoy the same protections and benefits as other citizens and workers. Sex workers must be understood as persons endowed with rights in a meaningful fashion, not merely as a rhetorical claim.