With the detention of two sisters on suspicion of being involved in prostitution under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA) sparking a row,legal experts working on womens issues feel there is a serious need to review the Act that permits the detention of a woman for 21 days on mere suspicion.
The social service branch of the Mumbai Police had picked up 11 women from a restaurant in Andheri on June 5 on suspicion of being involved in prostitution. Two of them,sisters,had moved a defamation case against the state in the Bombay High Court,claiming that they had been wrongly implicated.
While the maximum period of police custody under the Indian Penal Code is 14 days,PITA is the only legislation across the country that gives a magistrate discretionary power to detain a woman for three weeks. Section 17 of the Act states a magistrate may keep a woman/child in safe custody while an inquiry is on,which lawyers and activists feel is outrageous.
As a minor,the family plays the role of a custodian; later it is the state that assumes the role of custodian of a womans morality, says activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes who runs NGO Majlis for women in distress. The Act,formulated in 1956,has not undergone many amendments. There are sections in this Act that directly attack a persons right to liberty. We have seen several cases of women being sent to correctional homes,only to be given a clean chit later. Also,the social stigma attached to flesh trade in our country is tremendous, senior advocate V B Jaiswal says.
It was on a petition moved by Jaiswal that the Bombay High Court ordered the state government to set up a special court to hear cases under the PITA. Until 2006,women would be detained in sudhar grihas (correctional homes) for over six months,as there were no designated courts. Since the judgment,the cases are taken up on a day-to-day basis.
Some feel there is no other way to determine the involvement of the accused. Even 21 days can prove too less a time. Suppose the victim rescued happens to be a foreigner,it takes days,even months,for the police to contact her family and get the background check done, senior criminal lawyer Satish Borulkar says. Twenty-one days is the maximum,the magistrate has the power to release women once the inquiry is over.
Jaiswal says this rarely happens though the special court,presided by Magistrate S B Mahale,hears dozens of cases on a day. In most cases,in which many women are rescued,the magistrate ends up utilising 21 days.