All over the world, sex workers face a constant risk of abuse. As a matter of fact they are an extremely marginalized group of people, and are frequently forced to live outside social circles. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that they face discrimination and harassment along with physical and sexual abuse– sometimes on a daily basis – or that they are often denied access to basic health and housing services.

Though the term sex workers refers primarily to prostitutes, but it also encompasses adult video performers, phone sex operators, webcam models, dancers in strip clubs, and others who provide sexually-related services. It is also put forth over time that since other personnel like bouncers, managers, directors, and video recorders are also related to this work, they should also be included under this category.

Of all the issues of concern to the international human rights community, prostitution is one of the most misunderstood and least discussed. A distinction has traditionally been made between prostitution as a matter of personal choice and a form of work, perhaps reprehensible but unavoidable, and enforced prostitution, or traffic in persons, considered as a slavery-practice to be combated by the international community. This distinction was formalized in international law from the beginning of this century, various treaties banning the international traffic in persons were concluded.

Prostitution in India is not a new  profession – is one of the oldest professions in the country. The earliest mention of prostitution occurs in the Rig Ved, the most ancient literary work of India. Prostitution has its roots deep in history.

Some claim it started off in the 6th century with the emergence of a practice called devadasi 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. Unfortunately, the custom still continues. Although, with the rise and fall of empires there have parallel changes to the devadasi practice, but the stigma that this profession has acquired throughout ancient, medieval and modern India is of gigantic proportions and it brings along with it threats posed to the workers operating in this field.

The first legislation to address this issue was the ‘Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girl Act, 1956’ which was later amended to  ‘Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956’.

Indian laws are vague when it comes to regulating prostitution. Under Indian legislation, it is not illegal to use your body sexually as a source of income, it is, however, illegal de-jure to own a brothel. From this we can deduce that our lawmakers failed to realize or altogether ignored the fact that even a sex worker needs a place to carry out her profession.

Although India has many constitutional and legislative provisions for protecting the human rights of sex workers and prohibiting human trafficking in India, the main issue remains the social exclusion of these workers. The sex workers in India, in absence of any legal cover, continue to operate covertly. Marx believed that prostitution is a kind of service, and like any other worker who does skilled work/ does a service and gets paid, the prostitutes offer sexual services to people against money and unless it is forced, it must be legal.

After the reforms of 2002, Germany has legalized prostitution, which is now a billion dollar industry. Following suit, many other European countries like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France too have legalized sexual acts in exchange of money.

The debate on whether prostitution must be legalized in India too, has been long raging. Maneka Gandhi, Union Cabinet Minister of Women and Child Development in response to a question whether government would take steps towards legalization of prostitution in the country, she replied that the government has no plans to do so.

In the follow up question about the schemes, if any, by the central government for the welfare of sex workers and their children, she explained the ‘Ujjawala’ programme by the government in force since 2007. The scheme has been called quite successful but certainly suffers implementation lags. Schemes like these become pertinent in a world where the sex workers are marginalized socially and stigmatized.

Certain European countries like Sweden, Norway and Iceland, follow the Nordic model, according to which it is illegal to buy but not to sell sexual acts. France has also joined the wagon recently, legalizing buying of sexual acts.

After the prostitute movement of 1970s in Lyon called as the mobilisations de prostituées, the International Committee for Prostitute Rights was formed, the committee on 1985 adopted the World Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights which calls for the decriminalisation of “all aspects of adult prostitution resulting from individual decision”.

Acknowledging the wave of women rights,we must not turn away from people like the sex worker in Papua New Guinea who narrated an incident about when she tried to report abuse by a client to the police only to be told that they did not want to “waste time” on sex workers. Nor should we ignore what happens in Hong Kong where the police are allowed to receive ‘sexual services’ from sex workers in order to collect evidence.

Though it is doubtful that a country (India) that sought to banned commercial surrogacy is likely to promote prostitution rights. But as we know, prostitution is not illegal in India (celebrated historically) and the irony is gazing starkly in the eyes of the cultural morality of India.

It has been clear from the start that this was not going to be easy. Any position inevitably leads to stormy waters. But the intention is to initiate a dialogue, to spark a debate, and then to continue it in order to kindle a change for betterment. If there is a evil let’s face it and make it a little less diabolic or if the will of “We the people of India” be to skill the sex-workers differently and provide them other opportunities and criminalize prostitution, then so be it! 

Even while we consider the second argument of criminalizing prostitution then too we are not necessarily taking away from the human-rights character of sex-work. Through sex-work maybe a human right under Article 19(1)g of the Indian Constitution, still the legislature in their wisdom, considering the general interest of the public,  criminalize/regulate it (in the same way that they chose for surrogacy). But while doing so it must necessarily provide for skilling and alternative job opportunities. What is more important is that we act and not leave the issue in limbo and let the sex-workers feel the wrath of it. 


Authored by Gyan Prakash Tripathi

With inputs from Harsh Bajpai & Pranav Tiwari


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