The legal status of prostitution in India exists in a bit of a conundrum due to the reluctance of the legislators to rework archaic laws that govern the practice of sex work that puts the life of many under duress and unnecessary risk.
Widely known as the world’s oldest profession, sex work has a rich history in India that spans right back to the ancient times. While sex work was richly respected as a profession back then, it seems like the tides of modernity haven’t been washing uniformly for the profession now.
Heavily stigmatised, dangerously mismanaged, and threatening to most parties involved, sex work in India is in a place that begs a curious and in-depth examination.
Although the exchange of sexual pleasure for financial benefits and otherwise is legal in India, the related activities that surround the ecosystem of sex work are rendered illegal by the Indian judicial system, putting the whole activity in a legal flummox.
These illegal activities include soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning and operating a brothel, and pimping. Considering more often than not these activities are deeply intertwined with sex work, it makes most sex workers de-facto criminals as it is difficult to undertake sex work without indulging in the aforementioned processes.
An important piece of legislation to study while talking about sex work in India is the Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act of 1956.
The Act essentially prohibits sex workers from practising their profession within 200 metres of a public place. Although the act does contain clauses that entitle sex workers normal worker benefits such as calls for rescue, and calls for rehabilitation, it is rarely ever exercised as most sex workers are stuck inside oppressive and often abusive brothels which prevent them from seeking any legal aid that might be available.
The extent and number of sex workers — voluntary, coerced, or under-age — in India is difficult to ascertain because of a lack of research and data, although there have been several estimates. The Ministry of Women and Child Development estimated in 2008 that there were around three million sex workers across India of which approximately 40 per cent were children, as young as 10 years old, and 35.47 per cent had entered the sex trade before the age of 18 years. Human Rights Watch estimated the figure at 15 million in 2012, however, other reviewers have set the figure much lower at between 300,000 and 700,000
There is certainly a perception, reflected in the media, that there has been a sharp rise of sex work in recent years; however, this may only reflect increasing visibility. Regardless of the exact number of sex workers, it is a thriving industry. A person may sell sex full time, part-time, or occasionally to meet specific economic needs such as education costs, or to deal with a family budgetary crisis.
There have been calls to decriminalise sex work in India owing to the prevalence of exploitation and rampant rise of sexually transmitted diseases within these rotten ecosystems, but before taking any step forward in advocating possible reforms to the legality of sex work in India, there are a number of things to consider.
Firstly, there needs to be substantial effort to educate the society about the supposed moral folly associated with sex work that often relegates people in the profession to the outskirts of the society, taking away the opportunity to seek not just societal support, but also essentials like proper healthcare and insurances related to profession related hazards.
Secondly, there needs to significant institutional investment into executing plans to take minors and economically disenfranchised people away from the industry as even in the case of adults voluntarily signing up for sex work, such consent is often manufactured by the lack of alternatives forcing them into a corner.