Brothel Goers, beware!

Sex workers are livid over an amendment to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act. Why?

By Subhobroto Ghosh

UP IN ARMS: Sex workers are agitating to have the new amendment reversed

Mala Singh, a sex worker in Sonagachhi, Calcutta’s red-light district, frets that she may soon be out of work. That’s because the latest amendment to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act seeks to penalise clients of sex workers. Says Singh, a peer educator in an HIV/AIDS project, “The amendment was introduced despite our opposition.”

The amendment was first introduced in Parliament in July, 2005. In December, 2005, the Cabinet approved it and the amendment came into effect in May, 2006.

Three important changes have been made to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act of 1956. Firstly, Section 8, which allowed the arrest of sex workers for soliciting clients, has been abolished. Secondly, the employment of a woman below 18 years in the sex trade has been made a culpable offence. And thirdly, it introduces Section 5(c) that seeks to punish clients found in brothels. It says, “Any person who visits or is found in a brothel for the purpose of sexual exploitation of any victim of trafficking shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months and also with a fine which may extend to Rs 50,000.”

It is this last provision that has sparked the biggest controversy. While some welcome it as a necessary move to root out trafficking in women, others like Singh deride it as a measure that will prove to be counterproductive. Sumitra Padmanabhan, working president of the Humanists Association of India and a campaigner for women’s rights, is among those who support the amendment. “Since we are totally against the legalisation of prostitution as a profession, we strongly advocate measures to curb the trafficking of women. The legal freedom hitherto offered to clients under the Act was a menace. Which is why we welcome Section 5(c),” she says. If clients stayed away fearing punishment there would be no demand for sex workers, and consequently, no supply of sex work either, she argues.

Not everyone agrees with that simple logic. For instance, New Delhi-based Lawyers’ Collective, which works for the welfare of sex workers, is up in arms over the amendment. “Threatening clients with punishment will force sex workers to go underground. This will prevent them from getting access to health services which could be calamitous, especially since they are already faced with the threat of AIDS,” says Shivangi Rai, a legal consultant to the Lawyers’ Collective’s AIDS unit in New Delhi.

Rai reveals that Sweden too had enacted a law to punish the clients of sex workers. But the consequences were disastrous, she says. “Sex workers have simply moved underground in Sweden and the involvement of organised gangs in the sex trade has gone up. We may face a similar situation in India,” she says.

Bharati Dey, founder member of the Durbar Mahila Samanway Samiti, an organisation promoting the rights of sex workers in Sonagachhi, shares Rai’s concern. “Penalising clients will affect existing brothels and since rehabilitation measures for sex workers are absurdly inadequate, the amendment can only be termed disastrous for the livelihood of sex workers,” notes Dey.

Associated with the welfare of sex workers of Calcutta since 1986, Dey feels that irrespective of whether or not there is a law to crack down on clients, poverty will continue to push impoverished women into prostitution. She also suggests that punishing clients of sex workers will hinder the usage of condoms and hence lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Some lawyers and activists also point out that the new provision of punishing clients is somewhat ambiguous. Says Yogesh Mehta, law officer at the National Women’s Commission in New Delhi, “The amendments have raised some questions that need more deliberation and consideration. One of the cardinal questions raised by the amendment is the identification of the victim of trafficking in a brothel.” Then again, as Indrani Sinha, secretary of Sanlaap, an anti-trafficking organisation in Calcutta, points out, “The simultaneous removal of Section 8 that sought to punish sex workers for soliciting clients and the inclusion of Section 5(c) that seeks to punish clients for visiting brothels is dichotomous.”

As lawyers and activists debate the merits and demerits of the amendment, sex workers themselves are also trying to gather support for their cause. The National Network of Sex Workers has demanded that the amended law be referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee that would consult with sex workers and public health experts in this regard.

Still, there are those who feel that punishing clients will surely act as a deterrent to trafficking. Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, a well known lawyer and the mayor of Calcutta, has the last word: “A person seeking to exploit a woman will now have second thoughts due to the new provision in the Act,” he says.

From The Telegraph, Kolkata. The writer, Shubhobroto is a Telegraph correspondent and a great enthusiast in the activities of the Rationalists' Association.

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