Sex work and the law in India: An AIDS INDIA e FORUM debate
A recent discussion about sex work from the AIDS INDIA e FORUM provides an insight into how the laws to control and regulate sex work in India are viewed by various stakeholders.
The AIDS INDIA e FORUM is a virtual organization responding to the HIV and AIDS crisis in India, by connecting the key stake holders together. This FORUM facilitates networking, communication and collaboration among those who are involved or interested in HIV and AIDS related issues in India. One of its main functions is a moderated email list through which members share information and mobilise around issues of common interest.
The discussion was prompted by the defeat of a new law to regulate sex work – the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment Bill. According to Tripti Tandon of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Unit the Bill:
‘Intended to shift legislative policy on sex work from tolerance to prohibition. This was sought to be done through the introduction of a new offence of visiting a brothel, which would penalise clients. It also sought to broaden the meaning of prostitution to include all transactional sex, as opposed to acts involving exploitation on a commercial scale.
By inserting a definition of trafficking for prostitution, the bill attempted to criminalise poverty induced sex work. Other changes included lowering rank of Police authorized to arrest, search and raid brothels and extending detention of sex workers to seven years. Sex workers vehemently opposed these measures which, they believed, would offset any positive effect of decriminalizing soliciting.’
In response to Ms Tandon’s update Dr Krishnan posted a message which questioned the agency of women in the sex industry and pointed to the importance of anti trafficking initiatives. Dr Krishnan’s message implied that sex workers rights advocates are, at best, ignorant and out of touch with the realities or women in the sex industry and, at worst, ‘support the perpetrators to legitimise this human rights violation’.
Dr Jayasree responded to this message arguing that nobody wants to legitimise trafficking, violence and coercion. Dr Jayasree believes that the main purpose of the Bill is to control female sexuality, ‘It is an ideological problem. People engage in sexual activities with or without money transaction. Sometimes, women may have to negotiate for money in their relationships for many reasons. The dominant ideology considers money transaction in sex as something bad. ITPA is drafted on the basis of this ideology…The spirit is to curb all sexual activities outside marriage.’
Meena Seshu made an intervention pointing out that, ‘Even if one woman is there due to force, deception or debt bondage – for me that is a problem. That is the reason why we are arguing for sex work to be declared as work such that we can eliminate or work towards the elimination of ‘force, deception or debt bondage’…The problem is that those that were willing are being unnecessarily penalized because of the perception that ‘majority who opted for this simply did so because there was no option’. Again I would argue that even if one person wanted to do sex work we should have a fair system that allows for just that.’
The exchanges are freely available online and well worth reading in full as they provide an interesting insight into some of the most important debates on sex work in India at the current time. If you are interested in becoming a member of the AIDS INDIA list see their page on yahoo groups.