The debate over legalization vs decriminalization of prostitution is in the public domain with reports that the National Commission for Women has recommended legalization to the Supreme Court appointed panel for rehabilitation of sex workers. The panel, formed in 2011 when the Supreme Court suo motu converted a criminal appeal relating to a murder of a sex worker into a PIL, is in the process of consulting various stakeholders.
The mandate of this panel was to recommend measures for the rehabilitation of sex workers who wished to leave sex work, and conducive conditions for sex workers who wish to continue working in the profession.
Magnitude of the issue
Estimates of the number of women engaged in prostitution have increased over the years. In 1997, a report of the National Commission of Women put it at 2 million, in 2004, a study sponsored by the Ministry of Women and Child Development estimated it to be 3 million of which 36% were children and a 2013 report on sex trafficking by Dasra, a philanthropic foundation estimated that about 20 million women were engaged in the profession. The 2013 report showed that 80% of these women are victims of sex trafficking. Most disturbingly, out of the estimated 16 million women who are trafficked, 6 million are children under 18 years of age. There is however no official estimates available since 2004 of the prevalence of prostitution.
According to the 2013 report, the prevalence of prostitution is highest in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal as well Union Territories like Chandigarh and Daman and Diu.
Multiple factors lead to women becoming prostitutes, the most common of which are illiteracy, lack of vocational skills, economic distress, migration, desertion by spouse, ill-treatment by parents and family tradition. Most work in miserable conditions leading to different types of diseases, depression and hopelessness. They are also faced with daily violence, constant police harassment and societal ostracisation. Given the informal economy in which they work, they also find it difficult to open bank accounts, get insurance or identification cards.
The threat of HIV/AIDS also looms large – reports say prevalence of HIV/AIDS among this category ranged between 2% and 38% in India (globally it is about 12%). However, due to their ambiguous legal status, they are unable to get access to basic services including healthcare, education and bank accounts.
Not prohibited, but is it permitted?
According to the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956 (ITP Act), “prostitution” is defined as the sexual exploitation of persons for commercial purposes. While it does not prohibit sex work per se, it imposes penalty for keeping a brothel, soliciting, pimping and plying the trade near a public place such as places of worship, schools and hospitals.
In 2006, India moved towards decriminalization of prostitution when it attempted to amend the ITP Act by deleting the provision that penalized soliciting and adding a provision that penalized clients of sex workers who were trafficked victims. However the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 14th Lok Sabha. These provisions were not well thought through given that it did not clarify the confusion about the profession’s basic legal status since provisions such as penalizing clients, prostitution in brothels and public places made it difficult for prostitutes to practice their trade legitimately.
In most of Asia, Africa and parts of the US, prostitution is illegal. Some states in Australia and New Zealand have decriminalized prostitution (no penalty for prostitutes) while Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Nepal penalize the client on the ground that prostitution is an aspect of male violence towards women. Prostitution is legal in most countries in Latin America and Europe and in some parts of the US.
The evidence however is not clear either ways. Some studies do show a correlation between legitimizing sex work and a drop in violence targeting sex workers while others show that it has resulted in increase in human trafficking.
Decriminalising – the way forward
As we re-open the debate about prostitution, Legalization in India may not improve matters given India’s lax law enforcement mechanism as well as cultural milieu. The safest option at this point may be decriminalizing the trade so that sex work per se is not legalised but sex workers are not harassed and exploited by the police, brothel owners and pimps (middlemen). It would also reduce barriers to essential health services, education, bank accounts, insurance, voter identity cards. The government needs to play a crucial role by providing credible rehabilitation options if any of them want to opt out.
The recently enacted Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2013 includes provision to penalize trafficking for any purpose. However, the government needs to strengthen its efforts to combat trafficking by dedicating resources, strengthening capacity of existing institutions and encouraging other stakeholders to leverage their own resources and expertise to address this serious problem. Considering the cross-regional and interdisciplinary nature of trafficking, there is a need to build and provide sustainable support to networks that bring together various stakeholders linking source and destination areas, frame common objectives and ensure accountability and effective delivery on the ground.