The proposal by the National Commission for Women (NCW) for legalising prostitution is perhaps one of the most progressive reformative steps that Independent India has undertaken. The issue, which has been a subject of intense debates for years, coming up before a Supreme Court appointed panel for its consideration during a BJP government’s period may raise eye brows, but there couldn't have been a better time because the biggest threat to such a move will be from cultural bigots and moralists.
The NCW chief Lalitha Kumaramangalam deserves kudos because with this decision she has made NCW hugely relevant. According to her, the move will also require “amendments in Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA) in the light of conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with the provision of article 21 of the constitution.” Incidentally, ITPA is one of the most abused laws, that too to target women, in the country.
The world of activists and academics surrounding sex work has been deeply divided for decades over the legalisation issue. Legalisation allows women to voluntarily engage in sex work as a vocation without legal hassles, harassment by police and exploitation by others such as traffickers, pimps, brothel keepers and extortionists. The advocates of legalisation also view sex work as “work” and its criminalisation as rights violation.
On the other hand, the opponents of sex work, view this as commodification of women and violation of their rights. More over, they feel that making it legal will give way for more exploitation and cartelisation of sex trade. In fact, the NCW’s statement on its proposal was received with bitter criticism from the anti-sex work lobby."Legalisation of prostitution goes against the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) definition of 'decent work' and is considered as selling sex under distress. Instead of criminalising the buying and selling of sex, we are giving more power to those who exploit sex workers and treat them as commodities that can be sold in a market," Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research said in a statement.
What cannot be denied is that despite a criminalised environment, thousands of women and girls, including minors, are engaged in sex work in India. Various studies show that a number of them are in it voluntarily - although forced by socio-economic circumstances - while a lot many are trafficked. Most of them, particularly in the red light districts of cities, are not independent and are bonded to work under brothel keepers, pimps and traffickers. They work long hours, service many clients in a day, and work in totally unsafe conditions.
Besides routine physical violence, what they face the most is the pressure to have unprotected sex with clients which will make them sitting ducks for diseases such as HIV and other STDs. For the same reasons, despite the millions spent on condom promotion and behaviour change communication by the Indian and state governments, the rate of HIV among sex workers has been increasing steadily in all parts of the country. In some urban centres, about 40-60 per cent of the sex workers are already infected with HIV.
Another danger that illegal sex trade foments is trafficking of women and girls. Some estimates show that 40 to 60 million women are trafficked within India every year, mostly for sexual exploitation. The stories of missing girls, a large number of them unaccounted, are common in many states. Besides girls from within India, sex work cartels in big cities also attract Nepali and Bangladeshi women, who are mostly trafficked.
Without the sanction of law, sex work is illegal and for all practical purposes it’s an underground activity. That’s what make is it a trade controlled by criminals. Since sex work, which is often called the oldest profession, is not going to disappear, the only way to empower the women engaged in it is to decriminalise it - allowing women to practise it legally. Evidence from the rest of the world shows that legalisation of prostitution, and making the criminal activities associated with sex work illegal, works very well for the women engaged in it. For instance, in Europe sex work is legal and regulated in eight countries. In Amsterdam, which are known for the glass windows, sex workers are one of the most empowered groups of women with negligible incidence of STDs.
In many European cities, while sex work is not illegal, the infrastructure that may impede the rights of women and even lead to trafficking such as brothels and pimps are illegal. The idea is to empower women and free them from the clutches of criminal syndicates.
Unfortunately, most often the discussions on the issue in India are hijacked by moralists. This bold decision by the NCW will also be met with a lot of moral resistance. That might also lead to the death knell of yet another progressive step to emancipate a group of most exploited women.