The Manmohan Singh government has set a record of sorts by kicking up some controversy or the other, whenever it takes any policy decision. Sex workers and the NGOs are now up in arm against the government’s reported move to punish those who visit the brothels. The proposed amendment to the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) states that if a person is convicted for the first time for visiting a brothel, then the punishment would be a jail term ranging from three months to one year, and a fine between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000.
In the second conviction, the person would face one to five years in jail, and Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 fine. The organised sex workers’ unions have threatened mass agitation if the government didn’t clarify its position on the amendment to Section 5 of the ITPA.
The All-India Network of Sex Workers was quoted as saying: “If an amendment comes, sex workers will be forced to go underground, putting us at increased risk of violence, and HIV/AIDS. Today we can say no to violent clients, and those who don’t use condoms. The changes will rob us of that right.”
Before Independence, and even until the 1960s, prostitution was common in the big cities and towns of India. In ancient India, there were Nagarvadhu, “brides of the town”.The society was tolerant towards the sex workers. The logic being, let the “ganda nala” flow outside the town. This worked as a ‘safety valve’, and perhaps saved women from sexual violence. Prostitution is legal in the country.
However, soliciting in a public place, owning or managing a brothel, and pimping are crimes. This lack of clarity, and hypocrisy in the society, makes the life of sex workers extremely uncertain and vulnerable. Mumbai and Kolkata have the country’s largest brothel-based sex industry, with over 100,000 sex workers in Mumbai.
This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of ‘call girls’, who work on the sly in the big cities and towns, some of them belonging to ‘respectable families’, and wanting to make a quick buck on the side. Even leading newspapers have begun to advertise their services under the pretext of massage, or some other innocent-sounding, services. Many European countries have registered sex workers, who are provided medical cover by the government.