The Invisible Profession of India: Sex Work

There are about 10 million sex workers in India, but they have not been counted as part of vote bank politics. Attempts to address the issues related to the sex workers have been less successful, mainly because of the political controversy surrounding the issues

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Indian Parliament


owards the end of the 16th Lok Sabha, a lot was debated and a contentious bill, The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, was tabled by Maneka Gandhi, former Union Minister for Women and Child Development (WCD) in the monsoon session Lok Sabha, 2018 and it was passed on July 26, 2018. But the bill got lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. The Modi 2.0 government is likely to propose the bill again in the Parliament soon. This time at the helm of the WCD ministry is Smriti Irani. There are tensions amongst the sex workers claiming that this bill will make their conditions worse and throw them in the corner of invisibility. This will again lead the country towards the debate of legalisation and rights of sex workers.

Prostitution is considered to be amongst the oldest profession in the world. In India the Vedas, the earliest of known Indian literature gives an account of prostitution as an organised and established institution. Prostitution in India has evolved from music, dance and devotion sex.  Indian mythology has given Menaka, Rambha and Thilottama the status of celestial demigods acting as prostitutes. The earliest record of dancing temple girls, Devdasis, is from 1230-1240 AD. They sang and danced in the devotion of Goddesses Yellamma and Mahakali. Though the structure of prostitution then was extremely patriarchal, it was well acknowledged as a mainstream activity. During Medieval period Mughals patronized prostitution. The dancers and singers denoted authority, wealth and power of the Empire. Prostitution had a strong nexus with the performing arts but, with the growing laxity of morals among the priests and the fall of Mughal Empire, masses of dancing and singing girls were left out of the royal palaces. With the lack of training of any profession, society had no jobs to offer them. And eventually due to economic problems they were left with no other choice but to take refuge in the trade of sex.

Also Read : Anti-Trafficking Bill 2018: A Bone of Contention

India has around 10 million sex workers according to some estimates, though the actual figures are well over that. With such a large industry this profession is till date one of the most secret and ‘invisible’ profession of India. The majority of it is clandestine due to unfavourable legal environment and discrimination against Female Sex Workers (FSW).

Poverty being the most striking factor has only been aggravating already existing imbalances in power and therefore increasing the vulnerability of those who are at the receiving end of gender prejudice.

Females start entering sex work significantly in the 15-18 years age group, peaking in the 19-22 years age group. They enter a hierarchical sex trade, with madams or pimps often exerting strict control over their working conditions, and keeping them isolated from other sex workers.  And when they get out they are judged by every sort of stigmatised mentality. Since motherhood was key criterion for a woman to achieve respect, and being a prostitute denies them this source of respect. Sex workers are forced to hide their identities under the shadow of another occupation in order to gain at least some respect from the society. According to the first pan-India survey of sex workers, April 2011, a significant number of females move quite fluidly between other occupations and sex work. It is not easy to demarcate women’s work into neatly segregated compartments.

This stigmatization is not only enacted by others, but also internalised by the sex workers. They have debunked the notion that the occupation itself is synonymous with exploitation. They have always accepted condemnation and abuse as part of their destiny for being part of the profession of flesh trade. It is engrained in them that “family” can never be their place; it will always be the “red light area”. The intersection of multiple forms of exclusion, be it caste, gender, religion, sexual identity or disability, adds on to their plight. When strong cultural notions are combined with the potency of religion or poverty, even more people are pressured into prostitution.

Sonagachi area in Kolkata

Trafficking is often considered the sole reason behind sex work industries. Often, millions of sex workers are coerced into prostitution and continue to be victims of human trafficking and forced sex. However, there are millions of other women who turn to sex work to escape poverty, out of choice. The law thus has to be designed to protect both the victims of sex slavery as well as people who voluntarily choose to take up prostitution as their profession. Unfortunately, Indian Constitution doesn’t have any law which solely caters to the right of sex workers. The principal legislation dealing with trafficking is Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 (ITPA) supported by sections 370 to 373 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).  ITPA does not criminalize prostitution or prostitutes per se. However, it is this very framework of ITPA and the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes practices around sex work. It mostly punishes acts by third parties facilitating prostitution like brothel keeping, living off earnings and procuring, even where sex work is not coerced.

The government has adopted the Swedish model of criminalising customers to reduce demand and thereby eliminate sex work. Implying the logic that less paid sex also means less trafficking. But this act has failed to attain any goal intended.

Criminalizing brothels, soliciting and the practice of prostitution in proximity to public places in an attempt to curtail prostitution has clearly failed, as evident from the fact that metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Kolkata boast red light areas of Kamathipura and Sonagachi respectively, which rank as some of the largest red light areas in Asia. The Act has made sex workers more vulnerable by forcing them to work in the darker, more invisible corners of the cities, silently suffering exploitation. This seclusion of sex workers also implies that they are left in oblivion about access to information and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, which they are most at risk of contracting. Further, it also means that they can’t access public facilities like public hospitals, colleges and schools because if they resort to the legal system under the law, they will be prosecuted for working in a brothel

The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 has been passed in the Lok Sabha with the intention of annihilation of trafficking and protection of the rights of sex workers. But the loopholes in it might make the existence of sex workers more difficult. The Ministry of Women and Child Development has claimed that the Bill does not apply to voluntary sex workers. However, this important distinction is missing from the bill itself. The Raid-Rescue-Rehabilitate model in the bill sanctions ultimate power in the hands of authority. The brothels can be raided anytime, where sex workers will be ‘rescued’ and then sent to rehabilitation homes, where they’ll be trained in alternate vocations. Perhaps the most widespread human rights abuses emerge out of these interventions. These interventions involve brothel raids by special police officers and NGO workers, where women are “rescued” and placed in rehabilitation facilities. Police raids, frequent in red light areas and under the pretext of rescuing minors, do not distinguish between minors and consenting adults. .

Also Read : Sex Workers are likely to press NOTA button in election

Ever since sex workers have been recognised as an invaluable resource in the law and policy reform process with a view of developing non-judgmental and rights based laws, policies and programmes , and if the intention of the legislation is to protect sex workers and victims of sex trafficking and provide them with opportunities for growth, it is indispensable to understand their problem from their perspective and make them a part of the decision-making process instead of ignoring their voice and consent. But on a contrary, sex workers have always been the missing voice in elections of India.

According to an official report of 2011, there were 3 million sex workers out of which 2 million were eligible voters but their participation was negligent. This is because, in every elections sex workers demand representation in policy making, including sex work in the work schedule of Ministry of Labour and Employment, grant pension after 45 years of age to sex workers and transgender and decriminalize their work. But not even a single political party or a leader, for that matter has considered their demands till date.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides its citizens the Right to Life and Personal Liberty. And sex workers have been deprived of these rights for decades now. Their visibility in the societal structure has been negligible especially due to the stigma attached around this profession. There have been movements like Nippani Violence, 2002 in India (Karnataka) to protect their rights but these movements have been suppressed. It is vital that sex workers bring issues that uniquely impact their community to the forefront and fight for their own rights.

The invisibility angle suggests that in order to be visible, the invisible needs to get out and let people see. Now it is up to the sex worker community whether to mobilize solely on their issues or join other marginalized people who have no access to same social, political, and economic security systems that have served to protect the rest of the population.  And this is only possible if sex workers unite themselves and see beyond the internalised stigma. Because, as it is said, if you don’t call out the evil then you are considered to be a part of evil. And this evil around sex work should end now.

(Slider photo credit: Libcom)