Last month, Saheli - a well-known feminist group in Delhi - organized a dialogue on the theme, 'The Women's Movement and Our Troubled Relationship with Prostitution', to mark the completion of 23 years of its existence. Gender rights activists, students, academicians, media persons and representatives from women's organizations and NGOs congregated to deliberate on this complex issue.
There are an estimated three million women in sex work in about 400 red light areas in India. Approximately 30 per cent of them are children. A majority of the women in prostitution are dalits (most oppressed social section) and tribals, forced into the trade for sheer survival.
The definition and understanding of prostitution has been changing in the women's movement, as the movement itself is not a homogeneous one.
What is interesting in the Indian context is the fact that the campaign for the rights of women in sex work coincided with the appearance of HIV/AIDS in the country (the first case of HIV infection was detected in 1986). Women in sex work were categorized as high-risk groups and several interventions were initiated. Efforts to introduce mandatory testing met with strong condemnation from the women's movement, which raised a furor, saying that such testing amounted to a violation of women's human rights.
During this period, feminists and the women's movement in India were also raising their voice assertively on issues such as a woman's control over her body, and raising their concerns about the 'commodification' of women's bodies. Kathleen Barry in her book, 'Sexual Slavery', speaks of women in prostitution who are victims of violence of the worst form, including rape and abuse. For most of them, sex and sexuality remains savage carnal abuse of their bodies, over which they have no control. For the majority, it is survival and not a matter of choice.
The traditional position has been that prostitution is female sexual slavery; its logical conclusion has been that the practice should be abolished. But in recent years, many women activists have argued for legalization of prostitution, as the present law continues to be insensitive, and harassment from the enforcement agencies - who see it as an illegal activity - continues. Once legalized, the advocates claim, women in sex work will not be harassed by the police; they will be allowed to work in certain zones and issued licenses; their names will be in government records; they will have to undergo regular health check-ups; and pay taxes.
However, an equally strong lobby has been countering this demand, saying that in the Indian context, legalization will not work, and may result in further trafficking of young girls and boys. Further, legalization will only make women in sex work more vulnerable to state control.
The advocates of the somewhat recent, rights-based approach, talk of decriminalization of prostitution. Decriminalization is understood as the removal of laws against prostitution.
Several voices at the Saheli meeting were strongly in favor of decriminalization. Meenu Seshu of Sangram, an organization in Maharashtra working with women in sex work, strongly advocated that prostitution be treated as a matter of choice, like any other job. Shabana of Vaishaya AIDS Mukabala Parishad (VAMP), a collective of women in sex work, supported Sangram's position.
Women in sex work have organized themselves in Sonagachi (West Bengal) and in Sangli (Maharashtra) to demand their rights and to counter police harassment. The fact that they are organized has helped them to some extent in negotiating the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV infection.
But the concept of `choice' in decriminalization still needs to be clearly defined. Some advocates of decriminalization declared at the meeting that a woman doing sex work is the same as a woman carrying bricks at a construction site. Such comparisons, however, can be misleading. Prostitution is not Labour, it is a violation of human rights. Besides, it is often rape. It is intrinsically harmful and traumatic. For almost everyone in the profession, prostitution is not about having made a choice out of a range of other available livelihood options.
Women suffer discrimination and are controlled the world over, so where is the question of choice? The Indian context is no different. If anything, it is far more complex.
Lalitha S A, an activist, who works with women in a red light area of Delhi, questioned the existence of choice for women in sex work. According to her, she was not aware of even a single woman in sex work who wanted her daughter to enter the trade. According to Lalitha, most of these women put their children in boarding schools, if they can afford it, or leave them with their families back in the village. Most of them have come into sex work either by deceit or have been forced, cheated, kidnapped, deserted or raped into the sex trade.
Finally, it seems that whether it is legalization or decriminalization of prostitution, it is a no-win situation for the women, especially in brothel-based sex work. While legalization would lead to exploitation by authorities who issue licenses etc, decriminalization would not free prostitutes from the clutches of pimps and brothel-owners.
Activists like Lalitha say that the immediate concern should be how to address the rights of such women. While both legalization and decriminalization talk about protection from police harassment and the right of choice, they have so far failed to address the issue of vulnerability of women in the sex trade, she says. "We need to create a climate for women where they are not sexually exploited and there is no violence against them. Most women in sex trade today are exploited. A very, very small number is there as a matter of choice."
While the activists, in all good faith, continue to argue, the objects of their concern are yet to get involved in the debate. What do women in sex work want? How do they view prostitution? As remunerative Labor? Or as a trade which they have joined as a result of poverty, rape, desertion and trafficking? These are vexed questions. As women's rights activists, we need to put forth clearly the consequences of the different positions being taken. And the voices of women in sex work, at least those who are organized, need to be brought into the debate.
The groups addressing this issue need to build alliances across other social movements so that the issue of women in prostitution is viewed as a larger social concern and not the exclusive responsibility of women's rights activists in the women's movement.