After Supreme Court’s suggestion to legalise prostitution, activists have warned that the number of sex workers may touch a whopping five million in just a few years if the suggestion is followed.
Last week, while hearing a PIL moved by NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan about large-scale child trafficking, the apex court had asked the government if it could not curb the prostitution, why not it legalise the trade, for it would be a better option to avoid trafficking of women and children.
The suggestion has divided activists who work for the welfare of sex workers in the country. Some had welcomed it, while other feared that it could worsen the situation.
“By legalising prostitution, you are going to give immunity to the pimps and brothels to buy or sell human beings. It will in turn increase trafficking of young women and children,” said Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-trafficking organisation.
“If this trade is legalised, the number of prostitutes in the country might double in just a few years,” she said.
The Women and Child Welfare Ministry said that there are more than three million women working as sex workers in India as of 2003. Of them, 1.3 million are children below the age of 14.
According to activists, who say that the real number is much more than the official figure, fear that if the profession is legalized, the number of sex workers would surpass the population of some European countries like Finland, which has a population of about 5 million.
“Once it is legalised, buyers will seek more young girls. It would in turn increase trafficking and brothels will flourish in the country,” says Gupta.
Praveen Patkar, the founder of Mumbai-based NGO Prerana, which works for rehabilitation of children of sex workers, also expressed similar views, saying that decriminalisation of the profession will open the floodgates for human trafficking.
“Despite having a well-formulated law against trafficking, we have been unable to check the menace. By what stretch of imagination can we believe that trafficking can be curbed when the trade itself is decriminalised?” he said.
In India, prostitution is not illegal. Only commercialisation of the profession is criminal, as per the Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act, 1956.
According to the Act, a woman can use her body for a commercial purpose in private, but she cannot solicit business or seduce clients in public. The law, which doesn’t recognise male sex workers, also bars organised prostitution – running brothels, pimping and prostitution rings. The clients can be punished for sexual activity at or close to a public place.
According to Gupta, the countries which have legalised prostitution, have witnessed a sharp rise in trafficking and also in the number of sex workers.
She said, “Besides, an increase in the number of sex workers, the rates of assault and rape against prostituted persons has also increased in Australia and the Netherlands – where prostitution is legalised.”