Prostitution in India

Prostitution is currently an issue in India. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Indian anti-trafficking laws are designed to combat commercialized vice; prostitution, as such, is not illegal. Brothels are illegal de jure but in practice they are restricted in location to certain areas of any given town and thus although the profession does not have official sanction, little effort is made to stamp it out or to take action to impede it. Sonagachi in Kolkata and Kamathipura in Mumbai, G.B. Road in New Delhi, Reshampura in Gwalior and Budhwar Peth in Pune host thousands of sex workers there and they are famous red light centres in India. Earlier there was a centre in Dalmandi in Varanasi and Naqqasa Bazaar in Saharanpur also.

Legal status

The current laws in India that legislate sex workers are fairly ambiguous. It is a system where prostitution is legally allowed to thrive, but which attempts to hide it from the public. The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as the The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, sex work in India is neither legal nor illegal; it is tolerated since prostitutes can practice their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. As long as it is done individually and voluntarily, a woman (male prostitution is not recognized in the Indian constitution) can use her body's attributes in exchange for material benefit. Once she is joined by another engaging in the same practice, the premises being utilized is recognized as a brothel and the act becomes illegal. In particular, the law forbids a sex worker to carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place. Unlike as is the case with other professions, however, sex workers are not protected under normal workers laws, and are not entitled to minimum wage benefits, compensation for injury or other benefits that are common in other types of work. They do, however, possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire and possess all the rights of other citizens. In practice this is not common. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which predates the SITA is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as "public indecency" or being a "public nuisance" without explicitly defining what these consist of. Recently the old law has been amended as The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA. Attempts to amend this to criminalise clients

LEADER ARTICLE: Sex Workers Need Legal Cover-Editorial-Opinion-The Times of India have been opposed by the Health Ministry, 'Sex workers' clients shouldn't be penalised'-India-The Times of India and has encountered considerable opposition. LEADER ARTICLE: Sex Work Is No Crime-Editorial-Opinion-The Times of India


Most of the research done by Sanlaap indicates that the majority of sex workers in India work as prostitutes due to lacking resources to support themselves or their children. Most do not choose this profession out of preference, but out of necessity, often after the breakup of a marriage or after being disowned and thrown out of their homes by their families. The children of sex workers are much more likely to get involved in this kind of work as well. A survey completed in 1988 by the All Bengal Women's Union interviewed a random sample of 160 sex workers in Calcutta and of those, 23 claimed that they had come of their own accord, whereas the remaining 137 women claimed to have been introduced into the sex trade by agents of various sorts. The breakdown was as follows:

The breakdown of the agents by sex were as follows: 76% of the agents were female and only 24% were males. Over 80% of the agents bring young women into the profession were known people and not traffickers: neighbors, relatives, etc.

Also prevalent in Indian prostitution is the Chukri System, whereby a female is coerced into prostitution to pay off debts, as a form of bonded labour. In this system, the prostitute generally works without pay for one year or longer in order to repay a supposed debt to the brothel owner for food, clothes, make-up and living expenses. In India, the Government's "central sponsored scheme" provides financial or in-kind grants to released bonded labourers and their family members, the report noted, adding over 2,85,000 people have benefited to date. Almost 5,000 prosecutions have been recorded so far under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976.

Some women and even girls are by tradition born into prostitution to support the family. The Bachara, for example, follow this tradition with eldest daughters often expected to be prostitutes.

According to Reuters (Masako Iijima, "S. Asia Urged to Unite Against Child Prostitution," Reuters, June 19, 1998), over than 40% of 484 prostituted girls rescued during major raids of brothels in Bombay in 1996 were from Nepal.

At the other end of the spectrum operate high class escort girls recruited from women's colleges and the vast cadres of India's fashion and film industries. They can command large sums of money. These services usually operate by way of introduction. However a recent trend has seen the emergence of several snazzy websites, openly advertising their services.'''''

Male sex workers

Male prostitution is increasingly visible in India. In Delhi there are as many as twenty "agencies" offering "handsome masseurs" in the classifieds of the newspapers (Hindustan times). They offer both in and out services, although the facilities are usually very basic. Most western clients are visited at their hotels. Local middle class Indians are also now using these services. Fees are discussed over the phone, typically 1000 - 3000 Rs. Safe sex and condom use is generally well understood. The workers typically do not speak English too well. They are also found in Delhi's emerging gay night life scene, with several "one nighters" at various middle class night clubs in the city.

In India, male homosexual acts are illegal and as such male prostitution is all but invisible and not much is currently known about the status of male sex workers. Due to the social stigma attached to homosexuality in India and the lack of legal protection, they tend to face higher risks than females. They are often faced with violence from the police, clients, and are often subjected to extortion from the police in order to carry on with their work. A large percentage of male sex workers are eunuchs or hijrahs. Most know of sexually transmitted diseases through experience, but there are few preventative measures, such as condoms, that are made available to them and due to their legal status, no regimen of testing for AIDS or other diseases are available.


Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta) have the country's largest brothel based sex industry, with over 100,000 sex workers in Mumbai. It is estimated that more than 50% of the sex workers in Mumbai are HIV-positive. In Surat, a study discovered that HIV prevalence among sex workers had increased from 17% in 1992 to 43% in 2000.

A positive outcome of a prevention program among prostitutes can be found in Sonagachi. The education program targeted about 5,000 female prostitutes. A team of two peer workers carried out outreach activities including education, condom promotion and follow-up of STI cases. When the project was launched in 1992, 27% of sex workers reported condom use. By 1995 this had risen to 82%, and in 2001 it was 86%. Reaching women who are working in brothels has proven to be quite difficult due to the sheltered and secluded nature of the work, where pimps, Mashis, and brothel-keepers often control access to the women and prevent their access to education, resulting in a low to modest literacy rate for many sex workers.

Consistently high HIV infection rates among sex workers (50% or more among Mumbai's female sex worker population since 1993), coupled with lack of information, failure to use protection, and the migrancy of their clients, may contribute to the spread of AIDS in the region and the country .

See also

Prostitution in Kolkata


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