Guilty Without Trial

Guilty Without Trial: Women in the Sex trade in Calcutta, by Carolyn Sleightholme and Indrani Sinha (published in 1996 by STREE books in India and in 1997 by Rutgers University Press in the United States, ISBN 978-0-8135-2381-1) is a look into the lives of sex workers in Calcutta, focusing particularly on the red light district of Sonagachi. The authors interview a number of women in order to gain an insight into the dynamics and the standards and conditions that drive the sex trade in Calcutta and nearby areas in India.

Economic and Social Vulnerability of Women

The authors attempt to link the sex trade with the social and economic vulnerability of women in Indian society, and make suggestions as to what can be done to change this. Their conclusions are largely that prostitution in India is the result of: 1) illegal trafficking in human beings that is either ignored by the government or encouraged by it due to endemic corruption; 2) most sex workers enter the profession due to financial difficulties associated with their inferior status as women in Indian society; 3) lack of alternatives and lack of skills that can allow them choices, and 4) active procurement of young ladies and children by people they know in attempts to profit off of their ignorance, naivitee, or illiteracy. It was noted that prostitutes in India often take what is left of their earnings after the pimps and brothel keepers take their cuts, and send it home to their families in the villages where they were procured from to support their families.

Police Corruption

The book makes it clear that although India has nominally agreed to sign international agreements aimed at abolishing the sex trade and rescuing women from the brothels, that very little police action is actually taken and the authorities often seem to be working in collusion with the traffickers for financial gain. The typical response of the police to a raid of a brothel is to collect the children only when a complaint has been lodged, then wait for an assumed guardian (usually working for the pimp, trafficking network, or brothel) to show up and claim guardianship, at which time the girls are released back into the care of the brothel keepers to continue their work.

Chukri and Aadhiya Systems

The Chukri System and Aadhiya System of prostitution are highlighted as well, forming two of the most common forms in which the profession takes place in Kolkata. In the Chukri System, the women are generally promised food, shelter, medical care, etc. and in return they work for free as bonded labour, virtual slaves to their landowners. In the Aadhiya system, the sex workers are rented a room by a mashi (brothel keeper) where a sex worker works during the day, but this system, although less severe than the Chukri System, is still exploitative because there is no fixed rent that is charged and the amount to be paid for the room and amenities needed to service clients depends on their daily income and the mashis take a percentage of their daily earnings.

Child Prostitution and Trafficking

Of particular importance was the prevalence of India as a "receiving country" with the girls (often underaged) coming primarily from Nepal to serve in brothels in Bombay, largely due to the open door policy between the two nations. Most of these children are lured with promises of marriage or jobs and then find themselves in a situation in which they are unable to escape from and socially stigmatized to the point where they rarely attempt to do so. Bangladesh is a donor country to a somewhat lesser degree, but its greater level of poverty makes trafficking in human beings very lucrative.

Hijadas and Male Prostitutes

Male prostitution is touched upon in the book, as well as the activities of the Hijras, but little information was available at the time of their activities. It was noted that this was an outlet for homosexual men who were outwardly assuming a heterosexual stance because of the status of homosexuality in India. The authors note that this is a particularly violent subculture because of the competition with females for space and clients, and due to the strictly illegal status of male homosexuality in India, exposing Eunuchs and gays to extortion from the police, violence from homophobic hoodlums, and the like. It was noted that not all men who patronise other men are gay, but may be merely using them as substitutes for female companionship.


The book concludes with a suggestion on possible ways to move forward and a set of initiatives, some of which seem excessively naive, but many of which, if implemented seriously in a non-corrupt way could allow women more options and prevent the children of sex workers from entering the sex trade unwillingly and guarantee the rights of sex workers while cutting down on the level of trafficking. They place particular importance on NGOs such as Sanlaap (of which one of the authors, Indrani Sinha, is a founder) or the All Bengal Womens Union in order to educate people and provide legal aid, health and related services to the women who practice sex work.

Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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