A tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of India, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition, and were considered an authority on etiquette. Tawaifs were largely a North Indian institution central to Mughal court culture from the 16th century onwards and became even more prominent with the weakening of Mughal rule in the mid-18th century. They contributed significantly to the continuation of traditional dance and music forms and then emergence of modern Indian cinema.
According to Priti Patkar, a Maharashtra-based social activist working with sex workers in the state, many sex workers were forced to take loans from private lenders at high interest rates during the first wave of the Covid pandemic. “We conducted a survey during the first wave which revealed sex workers were taking loans to survive. For their daily meals, they were entirely dependent on donations. We have not conducted any such survey during the second wave, but we have heard the same thing has happened this time, too,” said Patkar, who leads the NGO, Prerana.
"From time immemorial Indian poets have sung praises of the 'public woman', the professional entertainer. The epics give us a colourful description of her intimate connection with royal splendour. The Puranas highlight her auspicious presence as a symbol of good luck. Buddhist literature also testifies to the high esteem in which she was held in society. She appears through the ages in different incarnations from apsara in divine form to ganika, devdasi, nartika [ordinary dancer], kanchani, tawaif and the nautch girl."
Government organisations like MDACS (Maharashtra District AIDS Control Society) have played a very prominent role in generating awareness on HIV/AIDS, through the assistance in providing free literature and organising street campaigns. There are several NGOs that work to prevent the spread of STI/STDs in the community. NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation), a government agency leads these NGOs. The Durbar Mahila Sumanwua Committee is a sex-workers' union based in Sonagachi, Kolkata, which has 65,000 members. They advocate for labour rights for sex workers, and they also fight against trafficking.
There were an estimated two million female sex workers in the country in 1997. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of over 3 million female sex workers in India, with 35.47 percent of them entering the trade before the age of 18 years. The number of prostitutes rose by 50% between 1997 and 2004.
Surveys show there are an estimated 1.2 million children involved in prostitution.
Much new knowledge on sex work in India came from the first major survey, in April 2011. This was performed by the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM), which is part of SANGRAM, a major NGO that deals with sex workers.
The law is vague on prostitution itself. The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, prostitutes can practise their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. A BBC article, however, mentions that prostitution is illegal in India; the Indian law does not refer to the practice of selling one's own sexual service as "prostitution".Clients can be punished for sexual activity in proximity to a public place. Organised prostitution (brothels, prostitution rings, pimping, etc.) is illegal. As long as it is done individually and voluntarily, a woman (male prostitution is not recognised in any law in India) can use her body in exchange for material benefit. 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, sex workers are not protected under normal labour laws, but they possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire, and they possess all the rights of other citizens.
In practice SITA is not commonly used. 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. In 1986 the old law was amended as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or ITPA. Attempts to amend this to criminalise clients have been opposed by the Health Ministry, and has encountered considerable opposition.
In a positive development in the improvement of the lives of female sex workers in Calcutta, a state-owned insurance company has provided life insurance to 250 individuals.
Over the years, India saw a growing mandate to legalise prostitution, to avoid exploitation of sex workers and their children by middlemen and in the wake of a growing HIV/AIDS menace.
Supreme Court of India; on May 19, 2022, upheld that everyone, including sex workers are guaranteed the right to dignity and life under Article 21 of Constitution of India. Thus, sex workers can not be harassed and arrested legally. Brothel related practices still remain illegal.
Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, or ITPA, also called the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA) is a 1986 amendment of legislation passed in 1956 as a result of the signing by India of the United Nations' declaration in 1950 in New York on the suppression of trafficking. The act, then called the All India Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA), was amended to the current law. The laws were intended as a means of limiting and eventually abolishing prostitution in India by gradually criminalising various aspects of sex work. The main points of the PITA are as follows:
Sex Workers: A prostitute who seduces or solicits shall be prosecuted. Similarly, call girls can not publish phone numbers to the public (imprisonment up to 6 months with fine, point 8). Sex workers are also punished for prostitution near any public place or notified area (imprisonment of up to 3 months with fine, point 7).
Clients: A client is guilty of consorting with prostitutes and can be charged if he engages in sex acts with a sex worker within 200 yards of a public place or "notified area" (imprisonment of up to 3 months, point 7). The client may also be punished if the sex worker is below 18 years of age (from 7 to 10 years of imprisonment, no matter the age of the minor, point 7).
Pimps : Pimps or live-in lovers who live off a prostitute's earnings are guilty of a crime. Any adult male living with a prostitute is assumed to be guilty unless he can prove otherwise (imprisonment of up to 2 years with fine, point 4).
Brothel: Landlords and brothel-keepers can be prosecuted, maintaining a brothel is illegal (from 1 to 3 years' imprisonment with fine for first offence, point 3). Detaining someone at a brothel for the purpose of sexual exploitation can lead to prosecution (imprisonment of more than 7 years, point 6). Prostitution in a hotel is also a criminal offence.
Procuring and trafficking: A person who procures or attempts to procure anybody is liable to be punished. A person who moves a person from one place to another (human trafficking) can be prosecuted similarly (7 years' imprisonment with fine for first conviction, and up to life imprisonment thereafter, point 5B).
Rescued Women: The government is legally obligated to provide rescue and rehabilitation in a "protective home" for any sex worker requesting assistance (point 21).
A "public place" in context of this law includes places of public religious worship, educational institutions, hostels, hospitals etc. A "notified area" is a place which is declared to be "prostitution-free" by the state government under the PITA. "Brothel" in context of this law, is a place which has two or more sex workers (2a). Prostitution itself is not an offence under this law, but soliciting, brothels, madams and pimps are illegal.
Political and legal debates
In 2006 the Ministry of Women and Child Development put forward a bill aimed at reducing human trafficking. The bill proposed criminalising the clients of trafficked prostitutes. However, it stalled during the legislative process, and legislation against human trafficking was subsequently effected by amendments to the Indian Penal Code.
Clauses in the ITPA relating to living off the earnings of a sex-worker are being challenged in court, together with criminalisation of brothels, prostitution around a notified public place, soliciting and the power given to a magistrate to evict sex-workers from their home and forbidding their re-entry. Other groups are lobbying parliament for amendments to the law.
In 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that prostitution should be legalised and convened a panel to consider amending the law. In 2011 the Supreme Court held that "right to live with dignity" is a Constitutional right and issued an order relating to "creating conditions conducive for sex workers to work with dignity". The court directed the Central Government, States and Union Territories to carry out a survey to determine the number of sex workers in the country willing to be rehabilitated.
However, in 2012 the Central Government made a plea to the Supreme Court arguing that sex workers should not be allowed to pursue their trade under the constitutional "right to live with dignity". Government counsel contended that any such endorsement by the court would be ultra vires of ITPA, which totally bans prostitution. Opposing counsel submitted that the Act only prohibited brothel activities and punitive action against pimps. The Supreme Court agreed to examine the plea.
Reasons for entry
An American GI and prostitutes in Calcutta in 1945
Most of the research done by the development organisation 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 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: 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. The breakdown was as follows:
Neighbour in connivance with parents: 7
Neighbours as pimps (guardians not knowing): 19
Aged sex workers from same village or locality: 31
Unknown person/accidental meeting with pimp: 32
Mother/sister/near relative in the profession: 18
Lover giving false hope of marriage or job and selling to brothel: 14
Close acquaintance giving false hope of marriage or job: 11
"Husband" (not legally married): 3
Husband (legally married): 1
Young college student selling to brothel and visiting free of cost: 1
The breakdown of the agents by sex were as follows: 76% of the agents were female and 24% were males. Over 80% of the agents bring young women into the profession were known people and not traffickers: neighbours, relatives, etc.
Also prevalent in parts of Bengal 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 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 2,850,000 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 girls are by tradition born into prostitution to support the family. The Bachara Tribe, for example, follow this tradition with eldest daughters often expected to be prostitutes.
Over 40% of 484 prostituted girls rescued during major raids of brothels in Mumbai in 1996 were from Nepal. In India one estimate calculated that as many as 200,000 Nepalese girls, many under the age of 14, were sold into sexual slavery during the 1990s.
Sex workers in India find it difficult to access health care and face discrimination, especially in government hospitals, based on their profession, such as being forced to take tests for sexually transmitted infection when they are ill, being refused to be admitted to hospitals without HIV tests, being refused to conduct physical examination before prescribing medication. Surveys have found that sex workers prefer private health care providers over the government ones where they have some kind of sensitisation training. Difficulty in accessing health care is due to factors such as hospitals sending women to their husband for approval to get abortion, financial hurdles such as high fees for abortion and difficulty procuring identification documents as many sex workers like unstable lives, having trouble providing a proof of address. A Supreme Court verdict in 2021 directed that sex workers be provided Aadhar and ration without asking for proof of address, which made the situation better for sex workers. In government hospitals, sometimes it is not even doctors who do abortions for sex workers, but ward boys will do. Sex workers also lack privacy in hospitals because people think they are okay with anybody looking at their private parts. Transgender sex workers face even more discrimination than women sex workers due to doctors' lack of knowledge of transperson bodies, hospitals not having separate queues for transpeople and hospitals not assigning them doctors but rather rush them to testing centres.
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 HIV among prostitutes have largely fallen, in last decade.
A positive outcome of a prevention programme among prostitutes can be found in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. The education programme 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.
Not only HIV but other infection diseases have been decreased, examined data from 868 prevention projects—serving about 500,000 female sex workers—implemented between 1995 and 2008. The research found that reaching sex workers through prevention programs decreased HIV and syphilis infection rates among young pregnant women tested routinely at government prenatal health clinics.
India is a source, destination, and transit country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Most of India's trafficking problem is internal, and those from the most disadvantaged social strata—economically, members of tribal communities—are most vulnerable. Thousands of unregulated work placement agencies reportedly lure adults and children under false promises of employment into sex trafficking.
Experts estimate millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking in India. Traffickers use false promises of employment or arrange sham marriages within India or Gulf states and subject women and girls to sex trafficking. In addition to traditional red light districts, women and children increasingly endure sex trafficking in small hotels, vehicles, huts, and private residences. Traffickers increasingly use websites, mobile applications, and online money transfers to facilitate commercial sex. Children continue to be subjected to sex trafficking in religious pilgrimage centers and by foreign travelers in tourist destinations. Many women and girls, predominately from Nepal and Bangladesh, and from Central Asia, Africa, and Asia, including Rohingya and other minority populations from Burma, are subjected to sex trafficking in India. Prime destinations for both Indian and foreign female trafficking victims include Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat, Hyderabad, and along the India-Nepal border; Nepali women and girls are increasingly subjected to sex trafficking in Assam, and other cities such as Nagpur and Pune. Some corrupt law enforcement officers protect suspected traffickers and brothel owners from law enforcement efforts, take bribes from sex trafficking establishments and sexual services from victims, and tip off sex traffickers to impede rescue efforts. Some Nepali, Bangladeshi, Afghan, and Pakistani women and girls are subjected to both labor and sex trafficking in major Indian cities. Following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, Nepali women who transit through India are increasingly subjected to trafficking in the Middle East and Africa.
Delhi-based woman film maker Shohini Ghosh made a documentary film "Tales of the Night Fairies" in 2002, interviewing five sex workers who are activists of the DMSC sex-worker union in Kolkata. DMSC fights against trafficking and advocates for labour rights for sex-workers.
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