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When she went to a party at the age of 12 with her elder brother, she had no idea that it would take her eight months to get back home again. One of five children growing up in a poor Boston project; an abusive mother with a string of boyfriends, some of whom sexually abused her; three-quarters black and one quarter Native American, Dee Clarke says she might as well have had a target on her forehead. At the party she met an older man; would she like to go out with him, he asked. She shrugged. Why not?

Dee Clarke, now 59, is telling me about being trafficked and sold and passed from pimp to pimp.

“They beat the crap out of me. Then they showed me how to turn tricks. How to make men feel great. How to wear make-up. I was 12. Hell, I didn’t even have a full growth of pubic hair," she says.

Clarke is in New Delhi, her first trip out of the US, attending the Last Girl First Congress against the sexual exploitation of women and girls organized by CAP (Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution) International and the non-governmental organization (NGO), Apne Aap.

For close to two hours, Clarke speaks without pause.

It’s heart-breaking.

When she finally escaped—running in the snow in her cotton pajamas—she discovered that her mother hadn’t even reported her “missing".

She was just another runaway.

The “last girl" is the most disadvantaged, economically and racially, and, thus, the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

“If you grow up in extreme poverty, you get exploited. You do not have a choice," says Clarke. “Even if you’re not trafficked, there is no conscious choice ever."

It’s this issue of choice that has many women’s activists riled up.

“Yes, for some women there is no choice," says Bishakha Datta, executive director, Point of View. “But what we’re seeing in India is that for many women—daily wage construction workers for instance—selling sex is a rational economic choice."

Agrees Meena Seshu, general secretary of Sangram, a Sangli-based NGO. “There are thousands of women seeking to enhance their income through sex work."

She points to a 2012 study that found a “significant number of females move quite fluidly between other occupations and sex work".

The abolitionists and the activists don’t see eye-to-eye on even the terminology. The latter use the term “sex worker" and see this as fundamentally no different from any other form of manual labour.

But, Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap, objects. “Sex work sterilizes all the exploitation inherent in prostitution," she says.

Both sides have compelling arguments.

The activists see voluntary sex work as potentially empowering; it could place women at the heads of their households.

The abolitionists say everyone in the trade is a victim of patriarchal exploitation.

Both sides agree that trafficking is abhorrent and illegal. But the abolitionists see no difference in prostitution “by choice" and trafficking.

Behind all the fury, the chief contention between the two groups is this: Should prostitution be legalized?

There are three million women who work in prostitution, according to the ministry of women and child development, and India’s laws are maddeningly vague.

Prostitution itself is not illegal. But solicitation is. So is pimping, running a brothel and living off the earnings of a woman in prostitution.

This is clearly problematic.

How, for instance, do you engage in prostitution, unless you solicit and set pre-agreed terms?

Is it illegal for a woman’s children or parents to live off her earnings through prostitution?

What if someone’s pimp is also her husband?

Talk about decriminalizing prostitution pops up every now and then. The last time was in 2014 when the then National Commission for Women chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam said legalization would protect the rights of sex workers.

The abolitionists say punish the clients and the pimps. They want to make it a crime to buy sex—a model favoured by many Nordic nations and introduced in Northern Ireland in 2015.

But activists say criminalizing the male client will force sex workers into taking greater risks as a lot of “good" clients will drop off.

As the debate rages, sex workers themselves have already in places such as Kolkata’s Sonagachi organized into powerful collectives.

In Sangli, says Seshu, VAMP (Veshya Anyaya Mukti Parishad) is a collective of sex workers, male and female, who organized in 1996 in the wake of the HIV/AIDS movement. Its agenda, among other things, is to challenge stigma and discrimination.

When she was 20, Clarke says she eventually left the trade. She now runs an advocacy group in the US. Of her three children, one studied medicine in Stanford and the youngest, a daughter, wants to be a dancer on Broadway.

At least one story has had a happy ending.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint. Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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