By Vishwajeet Singh Raghav
Prostitution is regarded as the oldest profession in the world. The practice was prevalent in ancient India but was not considered taboo that time. In fact, women in the profession were widely respected. Some were dedicated to temples and known as ‘Devadasis,’ wholly dedicated to worshipping god and accepting god as their husband. Even touching or speaking to them was considered an offense. Then there were ‘Nagarvadhus’, who enjoyed a high status and were appointed to entertain through dancing and singing, but still held a very respectable position. With the advent of Mughals, the condition of temples and local kingdoms deteriorated and, due to abject poverty, these women started selling their bodies for money. The situation changed for the worse with the British, leading to the growth of prostitution as we know it today.
In contemporary times, with the spread of human trafficking and STDs, the situation has become problematic in South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Among serious challenges the governments face are STDs, which are increasing and, even in countries where the rates are not so high, the high-risk groups (people having higher chances of getting infected by HIV) pose a grave threat. There is a high level of human- trafficking including minor girls aged between 12-16particularly in all countries in South Asia, where almost all countries act both as source and a destination for human trafficking. People are lured on the pretext of employment or a better livelihood and then are pushed into prostitution.
Also, health-related ailments other than STDs, like unwanted pregnancies and living in unhygienic conditions, are commonplace. The offspring of sex workers are often subject to discrimination and forced into the same occupation and are deprived of basic rights.
In South Asia, with India and Bangladesh being exceptions, prostitution is illegal but is a grim reality because it is widely practiced in these countries. Pakistan and Afghanistan consider prostitution as unethical because they follow Islamic values and traditions which consider sex outside marriage to be immoral. However, this has not helped prevent prostitution from being present in both countries. A large number of girls and boys are bought in these countries and sent to rich Middle-Eastern countries as jockeys for camel races and sold as slaves.
Sri Lanka hosts thousands of sex workers, approximately half of whom work in Colombo, even after prostitution is illegal there too. Bhutan considers prostitution illegal but in its border districts, the sex trade is openly practiced without any government intervention.
Bangladesh has legalized prostitution (except male prostitution) giving rights to women to leave the brothel when they want, reject customers and have control over the money they earn, which places them in a better position than women in prostitution in other South Asian countries. But the government has failed to control human trafficking and society does not consider prostitution as a respectable profession. The social stigma does not allow women to leave brothels even when they wish to.
Indian laws regarding prostitution are vague, not better than having no law at all, because it legalises prostitution but considers brothels, pimping, soliciting in public and creating nuisance in public as illegal. It does not clarify what constitutes ‘creating nuisance’ which leads to exploitation of sex workers by corrupt officials.
Even though brothels are illegal in India, it hosts some of the biggest brothels in the world, like Sonagachi (West Bengal), Kamatipura (Maharashtra) and G.B. Road (Delhi). The law implementing body just turns a blind eye on these and the sex workers are vulnerable for exploitation. India also faces a huge problem of trafficking, with women being trafficked in huge numbers from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. The rate of HIV among the sex workers in these districts is alarmingly high and they live under high risk of getting infected.
The whole region faces two major problems from prostitution- trafficking and health- related issues and the root cause is the failure in proper implementation of existing laws. What is shocking is not that prostitution is being practiced even after the state has abolished it, but the scale on which it is practiced, seamlessly under the government’s watch.
Even the Bangladesh government, after legalizing and regulating prostitution, has not intervened appropriately and the condition of sex workers has not improved much over the years.
As there is a lot of trans-border trafficking in the region, there needs to be a united effort by all the countries involved. Although the SAARC countries have made some efforts to tackle trafficking, a more robust approach towards the problem is needed.
The solution to the problem lies in legalising and regulating prostitution efficiently. Regulating prostitution would enable governments to have a proper count of the people involved and legalizing it would also help in reducing illegal trafficking and rapes.
According to a study by Dutch researchers, “empirical results show that opening a tippelzone reduces sexual abuse and rape. These results are mainly driven by a 30-40 per cent reduction in the first two years. For tippelzones with a licensing system, we additionally find long-term decreases in sexual assault and a 25 per cent decrease in drug-related crime, which persists in the medium to long run." (Paul Bisschop, 2017)
Bringing sex workers into the organized sector will not just secure their present by preventing their exploitation, but also their future by providing them social benefits like a pension, as they do not have any financial security. It would also contribute to the country, as statistics prove it is a multi-billion dollar industry and it would add on to the economy of these countries. Sex workers usually retire at an average age of 45 and government can provide them with job opportunities in its developmental initiatives. They can also be recruited by NGOs to help in sensitisation of general public on the issue by giving their side of the story and can also act as trust-builders between NGOs and sex workers. Legalisation can also help make the use of contraceptives like condoms mandatory if the government includes it in the law and makes non-usage a punishable offense. This would help safeguard the health of sex workers and bring overall rates of STDs down in the region. According to Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations (AFAO) policy analyst John Godwin, "Australian sex workers have very low rates of STIs and HIV, and most enjoy better sexual health than the general community.”
Lessons need to be learned from countries like Austria and Belgium which have not just legalized prostitution but have taken further steps to check the implementation and also the protection of sex workers. In Austria, it is mandatory for sex workers to go under health check-ups at regular intervals, getting registered themselves and paying taxes. In Belgium, the state has tried to remove the social stigma attached to prostitution by building sophisticated brothels with key cards and fingerprint technology.
If the region cannot contain the problem then it should try to convert it into a solution in itself. By registering sex workers, South Asian governments can better tackle trans-border trafficking with higher cooperation among each other. The role of government would not end at legalising prostitution but also its robust and efficient implementation. NGOs and civil societies can also be stakeholders in the issue as presently also they are working for the same and in some instances have been very effective too.
It would not be easy to move away from the social stigma that has been present for ages but are we not being hypocritical by ignoring the problem?
(The author is a student at Symbiosis Institute of International Studies, Pune, India. He can be contacted at email@example.com)