India: The Demand for Sex Trafficking: Holding Commercial Sex Buyers Accountable

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1 May 2008

“Naina has been raped by an old man. The same thing happened to me when I was ten years old. I hate the people who bought me and pushed me into this as much as I hate the men who were my clients!” (Meena, prostitution survivor whose 13-year-old daughter was trafficked into prostitution)

“No girl wants to join prostitution of her own will—none. I think all the people for whom the lives of young girls are sacrificed must be punished. If the police start arresting the clients, the others would stop coming. It will force the community to find alternative livelihood options.” (Fatima, prostitution survivor)

“Once I took poison. The last time I tried to put my head on the railway tracks, but then I thought who would take care of my family if I died? I have seen a few girls here slash their wrists. Then I cut myself twice and saw blood ooze. I wake up thinking who wants to stay on here? But what will I do then? I want to educate my son, so I have to earn money this way.” (Beenu, woman in prostitution)
Meena, prostitution survivor

Beenu was married at the age of 13 and became pregnant the same year. She lived with her husband for three years until he threw her out and she was forced to return home to her parents. Unable to support her child, she left for Sonarpur to find work as a domestic servant, leaving her young son with her parents. In Sonarpur she was befriended by a young woman who drugged her and took her to a brothel. Beenu felt she had no other options, nowhere else to go, no education or skills for employment, and a son to look after. For the first seven months the woman who brought her to the brothel took all her money. Between seven and eight men bought her body daily at a rate of Rs 50 (US$1.25) per ejaculation or Rs 200 (US$5) for an overnight stay. She earns up to Rs 100 (US$2.50) per day, of which the brothel madam keeps half, Beenu pays Rs 10 (US 25c) for food and between Rs 15–Rs 20 (US 50c) on medicines, tobacco or alcohol. She is able to save about Rs 600 (US$15) a month, which she must use to buy clothes and make up. She is only able to send Rs 200 (US$5) a month for her son. Beenu describes the kind of men who come to the brothel as follows: “Many drink alcohol before coming here. Some want to have kinky sex. They behave horribly if you refuse; they hit you and bite you.” Beenu is unable to protect herself from HIV/AIDS. “Few people agree to use a condom,” she says. “And if they don’t, I cannot force them.” Nor can she refuse any of these commercial sex buyers as she would be beaten by the brothel owner if she did or left with no other means to earn a living. Beenu has tried to kill herself several times. “Previously, I used to get this feeling very often that there’s no use going on living,” she explains.

The Government of India is currently considering amendments to its law on trafficking and prostitution. The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment (ITPA) Bill 2006 proposes significant changes in a number of areas including decriminalizing prostituted women and penalizing buyers of prostituted women. Groups including Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a survivor-led organization that began in 1998 as a community-based initiative of women in prostitution in the red light area of Mumbai, have been advocating for the proposed changes. However, they face growing opposition to the provision that would penalize the buyers, which is set forth in Section 5C of the Bill. One of the arguments made in opposition to the Bill is the belief that regulation of prostitution—and hence its legalization—would guarantee the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is prevalent in the sex industry. While the use of condoms has a beneficial effect in halting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, the condom provision approach to prostitution fails to take into account that prostituted women, as Beenu explains above, are not able to force commercial sex buyers to use condoms. Regulation of the sex industry has not shown any appreciable improvements in being able to negotiate use of condoms. In fact what happens in countries where prostitution has been legalized is that the illegal sex industry has blossomed in parallel and trafficking of women increases to meet the demand for prostitution.

It would be more effective to address the HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as the life crises of girls and women like Beenu, by reducing rather than promoting the commercial sex industry, which plays a tremendous role in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Curbing the demand for prostituted women and holding commercial sex buyers accountable, as provided for in Section 5C of the ITPA Bill, is a critical step in this process. At the same time, there should be provision of sustainable programs to provide prostituted women and girls with real alternatives to prostitution. This is in line with Article 14 of India’s Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the law, as well as the provisions of the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (the 1949 Convention) to which India is a party. Under Article 16 of the 1949 Convention, state parties agree to “take or to encourage, through public and private educational, health, social, economical and other related services, measures for the prevention of prostitution and for the rehabilitation and social adjustment of the victims of prostitution.”

Government and NGO reports estimate that there are from hundreds of thousands to millions of women and girls prostituted in India, many of whom are victims of sex trafficking. The majority of women prostituted and trafficked within India are from “lower” (scheduled) castes and many are girls, some brought into the sex industry as young as 13 years old. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March 2007 raised concerns with India about the sexual exploitation of Dalit (“lower” caste) and tribal women trafficked into prostitution. India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource and Development when discussing the ITPA Bill 2006 in November 2006 itself drew attention to “the prevalence of caste and religion based prostitution”, noting that “traffickers were clandestinely using this route to traffic the girls into prostitution.” This exploitation of women and girls continues despite Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

Kumkum, a commercial sex industry survivor, testified in Parliament in support of the proposed amendments to the Bill: “The pain that I have kept inside myself for years is not only my own, but is shared by thousands of my sisters who are trapped in prostitution and who are the victims of pimps and traffickers, so I wanted to express it for everyone. When we heard that Article 5C, which will penalize the persons who demand prostituted sex from us, will be included in the Act, we were relieved, since these people were the real criminals.”

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the officials below calling on the Indian Government to adopt strong measures to end trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, including Section 5C of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment (ITPA) Bill 2006, which would penalize buyers of prostituted sex. Ask them also to address the underlying issue of gender inequality and the system that allows those most marginalized in society, particularly “lower” caste women and children, to be exploited for commercial sex. Request that the Government put programs in place to provide viable alternatives to prostitution so that women such as Beenu, Meena, Fatima and others have other options to provide for themselves and their families.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister’s Office
South Block, Raisina Hill
New Delhi, 110011, INDIA
Fax: +91 (0)1123016857

Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, President
Indian National Congress
10 Janpath/24 Akbar Road
New Delhi, 110011, INDIA
Fax: +91 (0)1123017047

Shri Kapil Sibal, Minister of State
Science & Technology/Earth Sciences
19, Teen Murti Marg
New Delhi, 110011, INDIA
Fax: +91 (0)1123018705