June 21, 2012

The harsh reality of prostitution in India

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Prostitution, they say, is a necessary evil that brings chaos in a family and blemishes the surroundings of the society where it is practiced. Some go to the extent of labeling prostitution as an epidemic ‘disease’ that requires to be eradicated from the society. But very few question the very existence of such practices. Prostitution has received a lot of attention, but for the wrong reasons. Today, for some, a sex worker on the streets is seen and regarded as a woman of questionable character who must be taken to task for corrupting the morals of the society. However, there are also those who see and regard sex workers as epitomes of self-survival and independence of mind and actions. Perhaps the division in public opinion is why the Indian laws have also shown double-standards in dealing with prostitution. The law as it stands today does not prohibit prostitution on the ground that it is not there to enforce human morals or ethics as they fall outside their jurisdiction. However, the laws do continue to keep checks and balances in regulating prostitution.

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act introduced in the year 1956 defines ‘prostitution’ as the “sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purposes or for consideration in money or in any other kind”. Prostitution carried out in or in the vicinity of public place is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months. ‘Public place’ is defined as “any place intended for use by or accessible to, the public and includes any public conveyance”. Also, the law empowers the trafficking police officer to enter and search (without any warrant) the premises where an offence punishable under the Act is committed or is likely to be committed. The law does provide for timely rescue of victims and also lays down stringent provisions for the arrest and prosecution of those involved in trafficking business.

On an important note, the judiciary has extended its limbs towards this issue and the recent trend suggests that it has tilted in favour of regularizing prostitution. In the year 2011, while deciding upon an issue related to sex workers in India, the Supreme Court observed that, sex workers are also human beings and hence they are entitled to a life of dignity. And sex workers obviously cannot lead a life of dignity as long as they remain as sex workers”. Subsequently, a Committee was formed with an objective to frame suggestions for prevention of human trafficking, for rehabilitation of sex workers who want to leave their trade, and also for improving the conditions of those who want to continue with the profession. Commentators have also cautioned about this pro attitude of the Apex Court in providing support facilities to women to wish to continue in the sex-trade profession.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has made its intentions quite clear. In a recent order, the Court has categorically stated that it does not endorse prostitution in any manner, but rather is only concerned about the rehabilitation of sex workers. However, for some, the intention of the Court in providing support facilities to sex workers suggests the opposite. People have started questioning the need to institutionalize prostitution, and are at their wits end in comprehending how advancing support facilities to sex workers is different from institutionalizing the trade itself. Some suggest that rehabilitation measures are welcomed only to the extent they seek to restore the position and social status of the victims and not if they amount to removing of obstacles in the trade.