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Ridiculous changes in prostitution law
March 09, 2006
In my mailbox arrived the usual invitations for International Women's Day and the several morchas that it brings with it.
Here is a sampling of this year's demands: Reservations for women in Parliament and state legislatures, a law against sexual harassment, a comprehensive law on violence against women, a law against sexual violence against children, special provisions relating to women under the Employment Guarantee Act, justice for Jessica Lal, and an end to globalisation.
Nothing special about these demands, but yes, there was one demand that did amuse me -- that March 8 be declared a holiday!
On a more serious note, while the whole world is focusing on the India-United States nuclear deal, there is another kind of US agenda that is now being pushed through Parliament -- only very few people seem to care about it.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1986 is being rewritten.
And while it seems that the rewriting is motivated by the desire to protect vulnerable women and children, it is nothing of the sort.
Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, poverty has increased to levels which has compelled their people to seek employment options all over the world.
Women have been the most vulnerable of all sections of the population. Many women from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have taken to commercial sex work as a means of livelihood.
Large-scale migration of these women to the US and Western Europe has been noticed. That is when the US, faced with an immigration problem, came up with a policy of rating nations for sanctions, depending on their ability to stop trafficking of women.
Nepal, Bangladesh and India were put on the watch list, to monitor their progress in changing their laws and preventing trafficking in women.
US funding agencies have been told not to fund non-governmental organisations working with sex workers. Often, this is a condition of the grant.
One such organiSation seeking USAID funding has filed a suit in the US against USAID for discriminating against them because they didn't give an undertaking that they will not work with sex workers.
India, not wanting to be left behind, has also proposed amendments to its laws.
It has proposed changes to Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1986 . This is being done by introducing a definition of 'trafficking.'
While no one can disagree that trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution by the use of force and coercion is immoral and needs to be criminalised, the manner in which this is sought to be done will only marginalize sex workers and place them at the mercy of the police.
On the one hand the proposed law intends to remove Section 8 (soliciting) as it enables the police to pick up any sex worker, on the other hand, it introduces a section that makes it an offence for a man to go to a sex worker.
So there we have it: You can solicit sex work, but no man can have sex with a trafficked woman!
The first question one must ask is how is a man who goes to a sex worker to know that she has been 'trafficked' as defined in the Act?
What happens next? Do all men who go to red light areas get arrested? And what about the women they are having sex with? Will they too not be arrested for abetting a crime?
This is a rather dishonest way of going about reforming the law. We do not seem to be clear whether we want to protect these women or victimise them.
That is why the demonstration by the all India sex workers coalition in Delhi was an extremely important and focused one.
Out attitude to sex workers will expose our attitude to women in general. It seems quite possible for policy makers to swear by women's rights and at the same time throw sex workers out of work and into prison.
Preventing trafficking is a different thing from punishing sex workers.
There is no serious attempt to get to the traffickers.
Trans-border trafficking is not dealt with at all -- where the police alone have the power to allow a trafficker to enter the country.
There is a cosy relationship between the police of different countries, India and Nepal, India and Bangladesh over traffickers.
A look at the profile of a sex worker often tells the story of every woman. Many of them are women who have been driven out of their homes by their husbands and rendered destitute -- in an environment in which the government and the law have nothing to offer them.
Surely, a society that has no options to offer to women has no right to prevent them from pursuing their chosen occupation.
But, compulsions of falling in line with US policy on the subject -- namely the demand that the Convention of 1949 on the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others International Covenant on Trafficking be implemented -- has compelled the Indian government to fall in line with a law that makes no sense, that abolishes the ban on soliciting but arrests the customer.