New Delhi: Their faces covered by heavy makeup—rouge, lipstick and eyeshadow—and dressed in blouse and petticoat, skirt and shirt or salwar-kameez, the women smile and wave at the men passing by. The men stop and stare in response, and some make lewd remarks.
It was business as usual one recent evening on Delhi’s Garstin Bastion Road, more famous as GB Road, the capital’s teeming red light district that’s home to 4,000 sex workers, according to anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini.
The women living in GB Road’s squalid brothels, with dark, dingy staircases, paan-stained walls and floors strewn with cigarette and beedi butts, are oblivious to an event on Saturday that could well determine the future of their profession.
On that day, a panel formed by the Supreme Court and including representation from the National Commission for Women (NCW) will hold consultations and suggest ways to ensure sex workers enjoy the right to live with dignity, guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.
The aim is to regulate sex work to ensure a better life for the sex workers of India, estimated to number three million by a 2007 study conducted by the ministry of women and child development. The study reckoned that 40% of the sex workers are children.
According to NCW chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the aim of the exercise should be to stop trafficking of women and children, improve hygiene among sex workers, and limit the spread of HIV and other sex-related diseases.
To be sure, prostitution per se is not illegal in India. But soliciting, prostitution in public places, running a brothel or living off the earnings of prostitution, and procuring, inducing or detaining anyone for sex work are illegal.
In effect, the law de facto criminalizes sex work and “effectively undermines sex workers’ ability to claim protection under the law,” says a paper on the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, or ITPA, prepared by the Lawyers Collective, a non-profit organization.
The special panel to look at possible amendments to the ITPA was set up by the apex court in 2011 in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) on the rehabilitation of sex workers.
Changes are necessary to free sex workers from the grip of middlemen, create better working conditions and improve the earnings of the women engaged in prostitution, according to activists.
“Right now, their lives are governed by middlemen and they live like bonded labourers. But once the job is treated like every other job and legalized, these women will be free,” said Khairati Lal Bhola, president of the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, an NGO that works for the uplift of sex workers. “They can even start paying tax and help the economy.”
Not everyone supports easing curbs on prostitution. It will only push up demand for sex workers and result in an increase in trafficking of women, said Supreme Court lawyer and social activist Ravi Kant of the NGO Shakti Vahini. “Mafia and cartels will take over,” he said. “There will be a huge demand for young girls and trafficking will increase.”
A 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission on trafficking of women and children said that one-third of children reported missing every year remain untraced and that many of these were trafficked.
Almost 75% of Indian states have what government data defines as a “high concentration” of women engaged in the sex trade, and most are trafficked.
Despite the alarmingly high numbers, commercial sex work has been largely ignored, or been swept under the carpet.
“When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and when you are not able to curb it by laws, why don’t you legalize it,” a Supreme Court bench comprising justices Dalveer Bhandari and A.K. Patnaik told the then solicitor-general Gopal Subramaniam in 2009. “You can then monitor the trade, rehabilitate and provide medical aid to those involved.”
ITPA empowers police personnel charged with implementing the Act with special powers to raid, rescue and search premises suspected to be brothels, without a warrant. This makes women in the sex trade vulnerable to routine harassment by the police as well as brothel owners.
“ITPA hasn’t helped anybody and sex workers reel under the impact of punitive laws,” said Tripti Tandon, deputy director of Lawyers Collective. “The women work to help their children get education and a normal life. But when they are detained, arrested or sent to rehabilitation centres, there is no one to take care of their children and that’s when the children become vulnerable. When the law hasn’t worked for sex workers or in reducing trafficking, we have to look for alternatives.”
Not only are sex workers exploited by the police for bribes, they are also routinely beaten up by often-inebriated clients and physically tortured by brothel owners, said Tamanna Khan, a social worker with Shakti Vahini.
Complaints of human rights violations by the police during raids date back to 1998 when several NGOs started to work to uplift prostitutes. Back then, sex workers had no access to identity cards or government welfare schemes.
A typical brothel on GB Road contains multiple 4/6 feet cubicles with a bed each, covered by a dirty and bare mattress under which used condoms are stuffed. There are no windows. There’s a common room in which the sex workers, when they aren’t attending to a client, rest or play indoor games. Posters of Hindu gods and goddesses and framed verses from the Koran decorate the walls. Most women who live and work here are not sure what amending the law would mean to their lives.
A 50-year-old woman in the brothel, who has retired after 20 years in the profession, thinks it may give her a sense of status and identity. “There will at least be a record of who I am and what I do,” she says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The former sex worker’s two daughters study in a boarding school in Varanasi and she says her family is not aware of what she used to do for a living. “A hungry stomach makes you do everything. Your children and your dreams for them having a better life make you do anything,” she said about her reasons for taking up sex work.
For others in the sex trade, nothing will change. “We are used now and will be used..,” said a 45-year-old. “The exploitation won’t stop. We can’t run away from this job.”
A 60-year-old former female sex worker who has been living on GB Road since she was 11, said it wouldn’t remove the stigma around the profession. “Even people who are not in this trade, but live in GB Road, feel hesitant in giving out their addresses. What will a licence do to this stigma? Will we ever be respected in society?” she asks.
In Kolkata’s infamous red light district of Sonagachi, where more than 65,000 women practice prostitution, awareness of the law and the debate around it is higher.
Amending the law “will decriminalize it (prostitution) and give it the legitimacy of any other work,” said S. Jana, chief advisor of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO run by sex workers. “It will distinguish sex work from trafficking and also protect these workers from police exploitation.”
Jana, a doctor of medicine, says sex work should be covered by labour laws. “This will protect the rights and entitlements of sex workers. State and central governments will be made accountable,” he said.
Studies show a correlation between legitimizing sex work and a drop in violence targeting sex workers. It “brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels such that violence is far less likely to be a systemic problem as it is when prostitution is illegal but flourishing,” according to a 2005 study titled Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada by the University of Nevada.
But there are other studies that point to countries where regulated sex work has resulted in more human trafficking. “Legalized prostitution is associated with more reported inward trafficking,” according to Eric Neumayer of London School of Economics.
Using a sample size of over 150 countries, Neumayer, along with German Institute for Economic Research’s Seo-Young Cho and University of Heidelberg’s Axel Dreher published the study in the World Development journal in 2013.
To be sure, not everyone engaged in sex work in India is trafficked. Most women come from poor, remote villages in India and also from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Some are duped by lovers and sold to brothels, others come looking for a better life in a big city and find their way into prostitution, and still others join the trade of their own free will.
A 32-year-old female sex worker said she came to the brothel after her husband left her and she had nowhere else to go. Holding her two-year-old son, she asks: “How much can a poor, illiterate woman do to save herself in the kind of world we live in? I feel safe in the brothel. And I don’t want to spend every minute of my life under the threat of being raided.”
Iqbal Ahmed, a 59-year-old brothel owner who works with Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, said: “If licences are given, the selling and buying will end. No one will be forced. No minor will be made to do this work. A formal verification will be done. If this work is kept illegal, the dirt will spread everywhere.”