The commercial sex worker has been a universal being throughout civilization as prostitution is the so-called “oldest profession”. The earliest known record of prostitution appears in ancient Mesopotamia (Mehta, 1999). It is interesting to note that licensed brothels were established in Solon, Greece in around 550 B.C. The Indian Vedas, Vishnu Samhita and the Puranas abound in references to prostitution as an organized, established and necessary institution. Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra describes in detail various types of prostitutes, rules of conduct and the roles played by the procurer, pimp and brothel-keeper. Similarly, Kautilya in his Arthashastra declares the income of pimps, taxable. In the post-vedic era, the custom of Devadasi (servants of God) system came into practice. Today, the word ‘devadasi’ is a euphemism for referring to a woman prostituting in the name of religious tradition.
After all this history today we get to see the sight of girls with their faces covered with dupattas and which is not uncommon to television viewers. These young women have a very ordinary dream of a peaceful life with two meals a day, sell their bodies and routinely have to face the law in its annoying, unsparing form. Existing laws allow clients caught with sex workers to be let off easily while the women are held guilty of promoting, furthering and committing moral blasphemy. The law to tackle prostitution i.e., the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), 1956 is often misused.
1. As a source of livelihood:
In the Indian context, prostitution is not explicitly illegal though pronounced to be unethical by the Court, certain acts that facilitate prostitution are regarded as illegal and acts like managing a brothel, living off the money procured by means of prostitution, soliciting or luring a person into prostitution, traffic of children and women for the purpose of prostitution, etc. are made explicitly illegal by ITPA. The statistics across India shows that there are over 800,000 sex workers in India. However unofficial figures place these numbers far higher (National AIDS Control Organisation). Because of the fact that sex work is not recognized as real work, and is often criminalized, there’s a lack of good data on it. It’s hard to know exactly how much people are spending and earning in an industry that’s kept mostly underground. Women choose sex work for various reasons. These vary from extremes of being forced into the profession, to feeling empowered by it. Many women enjoy doing sex work, while others; do it because it is the only way that they can generate maximum income.
Sex work is work and if we have to analyse it from the point of view of dignity of labour, it needs recognition and proper acknowledgement that such professions exist and one needs to feel proud of one’s source of livelihood. In such a category, we may include those who are mature, who understands the market and who have willingly picked up the job, primarily for the income it provides. Decriminalisation of sex work is a pre-requisite to ensure the physical and emotional inviolability of sex workers, their right to life, right to freedom of labour, health and reproductive and sexual rights. Recent research with 3000 sex workers in fourteen States in India shows that a substantial segment of women had prior experience of alternative work and opted for sex work, for better income and livelihood opportunities.
The emerging rights discourse at the global and national level argues that efforts to respect, protect, fulfil and promote the human rights of sex workers need to be premised on ensuring their rights as citizens under the Constitution. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for instance, have given strong recommendations to India to recognise the marginalisation, vulnerabilities and human rights of sex workers in the country. The country has however failed to improve the status of sex workers or take up specific measures to respect, protect, fulfill and promote their human rights.
2. Sex Trafficking – a growing business:
A study conducted by a Guwahati-based NGO Global Organisation for Life Development (GOLD) many years ago revealed shocking data of children aged between 11 and 17 years forcefully involved in commercial sex acts. Human trafficking, as is known in the Northeast, involves the disappearance of young people from the region, especially women. Hundreds of young people are taken to bigger Indian cities and other foreign countries where they are exploited sexually and even forced into prostitution. Every year, many trafficked young girls from the region are rescued from other places and brought back home.
In September 2018, Meghalaya High Court Chief Justice Mohammad Yaqoob Mir said that India’s North East has emerged as the hub of human trafficking in India where unemployment, poverty, migration for jobs are some of the reasons for human trafficking. Voicing concern on human trafficking, the Chief Justice called for collective responsibility of stakeholders, state legal services authority and police to take care of the rights of the children and save them from being exploited. As the crimes revolving around this market is on the rise, it would be of utmost necessity for communities living across the North East region to be involved in creating awareness on the perils of such activities. This is because innocent people have been collaborating with such unlawful acts unknowingly.
The internet and digital technology are fuelling worldwide growth in human sex trafficking. According to ILO (2019), 4.8 million individuals worldwide are victims of forced sexual exploitation, 21 per cent of whom are children. And the ways in which the online sphere is facilitating this growth are multifaceted. It has changed the face of recruitment and advertising and led to new forms of exploitation such as webcam sex. The internet provides traffickers with enormous scope to seek out and groom marginalised individuals. Sexual exploiters can scan social media for young, vulnerable individuals. This is a common trend that is much in practice in our country and region, in particular with our young ones who are active in social media and who love to make new friends and interact with strangers online.
3. Empowering sex workers:
Every human being has the right to make informed decisions about his or her own body, and laws that govern sex work are laws that govern an individual’s right to make decisions about her own body. Sex work is illegal because it is largely viewed as immoral and degrading, but morality is objective and society’s opinion on what is “right” and “wrong” is constantly shifting. Morality provides no sound basis for law, as people governed by laws cannot possibly all share the same moral beliefs. While law enforcement agencies in any State approach sex work from a moralistic perspective and the ultimate solution to this is to abolish sex work. Those in the profession however opine that this approach is hardly the solution. Because of their approach, law enforcement agencies are not suited to deal with the problem of sex trafficking.
For those who have willingly entered into the profession, needs to be knowledgeable about how to take care of their physical and mental health, also to information regarding their rights vis-à-vis the police and the clients. Furthermore, sex workers need to be guided with the process, if they would like to leave the sex industry and earn money in other ways. There should be avenues created to provide sex workers with evidence-based, voluntary, community empowerment services. It is important to consider the context of empowering sex workers by giving them access to training on sexually transmitted diseases, the right to refuse and the laws that govern them.
HIV/AIDS prevention strategies with sex workers, for example, have traditionally relied on individual behaviour change, involving peer educators, condom promotion, and provision of sexual health services. The Sonagachi program in Kolkata in east India provided one of the first examples of a rights-based HIV prevention program for Female Sex Workers (FSWS), focusing on the mobilization and empowerment of brothel-based sex workers, as well as engagement with power structures, with data suggesting that HIV prevalence remained much lower in this setting compared with FSWs elsewhere in India. Empowerment of sex workers would also imply active participation and leadership of sex work networks, federations and collectives in designing policies and processes for accessing social entitlements and recognition. (The writer can be reached at [email protected])