Prostitution, the taboo word, actually finds its roots in the archaeological findings of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Today, India is home to the largest red-light area of Asia. The one and the foremost reason for women turning towards prostitution in India is poverty. Ignorance, illiteracy and hunger, the outcomes of poverty push many into flesh trade. However, prostitution does not give any respite to the sex workers from poverty. In fact, apart from being socially ostracised, exploited, and exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution sucks the sex workers deeper into a whirlpool of deprivation and destitution, from where there is no way out.
This renders the prostitutes even more vulnerable, and they are totally dependent on their earnings for their livelihood as they have no option of approaching the Government for medical or financial assistance.
A Peek into the History of Prostitution in India
Indian mythology refers to prostitution with references to Menaka, Urvashi, Tilottama and Rambha, with a mention even in the Vedas. In fact, prostitution is one of the oldest professions of the world practised since the birth of the organized society. Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra is the most important source of information about courtesans and prostitution in ancient India. Kautilya’s Arthashastra (32O B.C-150 B.C) contains rules on how prostitutes should behave and how their lives are ordered. He makes a distinction between prostitution and trafficking and emphasizes the absolute necessity of the willingness and consent of the prostitute to engage in a sexual relationship. However, there was a difference then. The prostitutes in ancient times were well looked after by their clients and not in dire straits like in present times.
The exploitation of the prostitutes in India began with the Portuguese colony in India in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Young Japanese women among others were brought here as sexual slaves. Apart from looting India, the British also left behind the legacy of prostitution. The British setup comfort zones for its troops where prostitutes were available for gratification. Prostitution dens were established across India like in Mumbai, which today is sadly a hotbed for child prostitution.
The 8 major red light areas in India today include Sonagachhi (Kolkata), Kamathipura (Mumbai), Budhwar Peth (Pune), Meergunj (Allahabad), G.B.Road (Allahabad), Chaturbhujsthan (Muzzafarpur), Itwari (Nagpur), and Shivdaspur (Varanasi).
The difficult but imperative choice of Prostitution
The question does arise in one’s mind as to why prostitution at the cost of being ostracised and discriminated. The factors contributing towards this decision are manifold and some of them are as follows:
- Poverty plays a pivotal role in turning into a prostitute. According to a 2012 report by the Planning Commission of India (Tendulkar Committee), 26% of all people in India fall below the poverty level (BPL). The income-based poverty line takes into consideration the bare minimum income required for the basic food requirements, and 26% population in India falls below this line. Health and education do not even feature in the consideration. Thus poverty is one of the key factors for turning towards prostitution.
- While many women turn to prostitution of their own accord, the same poverty makes parents or relatives and neighbours sell young girl children to brothels in exchange for a sum of money which will hardly see them through a month.
- Prior to incest and rape also are important factors.
- Further, most of the children of prostitutes usually end up carrying on the legacy.
A study shows that those who are already in prostitution find it difficult to get out of it because apart from poverty still being the reality, the decision is out of their hands. The pimps, the brothel owners and in some cases even the husbands would not allow them to leave the profession. There is also a matter of addiction. Most of these women are addicted to drugs or alcohol and leaving prostitution which caters to their requirement is no longer an option.
The Financial Condition of Prostitutes
A research conducted shows that a minuscule population among the prostitutes in India actually earn a large amount of money. In most cases, it is like digging one’s own grave, and they just go deeper into poverty than ever before. The reason for the same are:
- Prostitutes have to pay large sums as extortion to the local strongholds like politicians, including law enforcement in some cases, just to continue with their business.
- The amount that they pay towards boarding, lodging and food is also a stupendous sum.
- For the sake of getting clients, the prostitutes also have to pay the pimps within as well as outside the brothel.
- The sex workers’ lives are characterized by pervasive economic insecurity and a lack of control over their earnings.
Help from NGOs
Since the time instances of AIDS/HIV came to light, especially in the 1990s, NGOs have been set up which look after the overall interests of the sex workers. Among them, the following NGOs are also helping the sex workers to become economically more stable:
The Durbar Vision:
With the aim to include this marginalised community into an environment of respect and dignity, this NGO aims at:
- Changing the norms and policies operating at all levels of the society as well as the nation to include the sex workers.
- Empowering communities through a process of collectivisation and capacity building.
- Addressing power relations within the trade and outside.
- Building formal and informal alliances with individuals, groups, institutions and movements.
Sangini is a cooperative with a bare minimum of 3 employees and 4 volunteers. It has been exclusively working towards providing banking services to the commercial sex workers of Kamathipura since 2007. Today, the NGO has succeeded in opening 5000 accounts of sex workers with more than 3000 being regularly active. Sangini banks with Bank of India (BoI), where it deposits what it collects from its members. The interest yield is a modest 3.5%, which the cooperative passes on to the women.
Help for the Sex Workers
Important Steps that should be taken:
- Formal education to the children and non-formal education to the sex workers should be provided.
- The central and state governments in partnership with non-governmental organizations should provide vocational training to the rescued workers.
- There should be an awareness generation of the economic rights of sex workers.
Prostitution is a reality towards which the government cannot turn a blind eye. They are citizens of India and in dire need of economic help as well as emotional support. The state and central government should reach out as many helping hands as feasible through the establishment of more NGOs.