While a debate to legalise sex trade has been raging in India for decades, a recent study has put a question mark on such a proposal. A study conducted among sex workers in Kamathipura —India’s biggest red-light area, revealed that only 6% of the women joined the trade on their own. The rest were coerced, trafficked or forced into prostitution.
Shockingly, 80% of them entered the trade when they were below 18 years and one third of them were below 16, finds the study. The study was conducted by Pravin Patkar, founder director of Mumbai-based NGO Prerna and adjunct professor of Amrita University, Coimbatore. As part of his PhD, he conducted a detailed survey of 100 women aged 25-35 years. Patkar and his NGO have been working at Kamathipura for years to improve the lives of sex workers.
Older women get a tough competition from minors, admitted sex workers in the study. The study finds that 95% of the sex workers are knee-deep in debt due to exploitation of brothel owners, addictions and so on. A majority of the customers visiting Kamathipura were above 50 years and are in service or daily wage workers. Most prostitutes have grown up in a normal family with their parents.
They were inducted into the trade due to reasons ranging from poverty, forced by a relative, false promise of marriage or job. “Many say that sex trade should be legalised in India like some of the western countries. But when most of them have been forced, trafficked or coerced into the profession, legalisation of the trade will serve no purpose,” said Patkar.
He added that most of them are illiterate and continue in the trade due to lack of opportunities and social stigma. “They are more like slaves than professionals,” said Patkar. Being illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal makes the situation worse.
Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, a member of National Commission of Women, is shocked over the high percentage of minors forced into prostitution. “We can’t legalise exploitation especially when victims are mainly minors and they are forced into the trade. We need to rescue them,” she added. She pointed out the poor rehabilitation process. “Rescuing minors and sending them home is crucial so is providing health aid to those who wish to continue.”
Prabhavalkar, who has visited Kamathipura several times, observed that the count of sex workers is going down. “Many have left the profession. Kamathipura may vanish from the sex trade map in the next 5-6 years due to the shrinking prostitute population and expansion of builder lobby which eyes prime property. But the business is flourishing in hotels,” she added.