December 2, 2014 2:46:52 am
The recent proposal by the National Commission for Women to legalise prostitution has opened up an old debate. It is a misnomer that legalisation would lead to improving the lives of women in prostitution by way of reduced harassment by the police and provision of healthcare facilities. Advocates of legalisation should first examine the experience of countries where prostitution has been legalised. The mere fact that licensing has been or is being tried out — in countries such as Australia, the Netherlands and Thailand — does not by itself justify the automatic and unthinking transfer of the ideology, policy or law. Women in these countries are increasingly finding that their situation has, in fact, worsened after legalisation.
Legalisation can lead to an unprecedented spurt in the trafficking of women and children for prostitution/ commercial sexual exploitation. Once legalised, it will become extremely difficult for civil society groups and the police to enter premises that have been granted the licence for prostitution, and rescue minors or adult women who may be forcefully kept there against their will.
The presumption that harassment of women in prostitution would stop as a result of legalisation is flawed. The licensing process, renewal, inspection, certification, fines, cancellation of the licence, etc will increase the scope for further exploitation and harassment of women, who will now have to depend on a new set of agents and “pimps” to sustain their lives. It is necessary to distinguish between sympathy and real and tangible assistance. Merely giving licences/ permits does not lead to automatic improvement of the highly negative and, at times, dangerous conditions under which commercialised prostitution functions.
The legalisation position rests on a single premise — women will be issued licences by the state health department to carry on prostitution in a specified area and, in return, will be provided identity cards and minimum health and welfare benefits. Experience has shown that prostitution continues to have no social sanction and, therefore, remains clandestine in nature, even in countries where it has been legalised. In such a situation, women are reluctant to register themselves as “sex workers”, since it means getting identified by government authorities. Also, the issue and renewal of licence is subject to a health clearance, which means being STD- and HIV-free. What will then happen to those who are infected?
The existence of minimum services in terms of healthcare, child welfare, ration cards, etc may provide temporary relief for some women in the trade. However, it may not lead to substantive changes in the long run, when women are eventually forced out of the trade due to illness, old age, unemployability or destitution. Currently, such women are forced to service customers in many undignified ways in order to make ends meet. They have no access to any socio-economic services or schemes and face disconnection from the family and the community. One cannot understand how legalisation will improve their lives.
Before licensing is seriously tabled as a proposition, the infrastructure that the government proposes to create as a social security net should also be made public, and NGOs working in this field should be mandatorily consulted. A major concern here is with regard to the children of these women. The danger of girl-children getting pulled into the trade remains high, while the boys may become accessories to the trade.
Legalisation will be a direct blow to the struggle led by many women’s organisations and NGOs to rehabilitate women and children forced into prostitution, in a society where culturally women are under considerable scrutiny in terms of their marital/ familial status. Licensing cannot be construed as a genuine programme of women’s emancipation, but only as a half-hearted attempt to provide economic legitimacy to poverty-stricken families, and promoted by agencies that have advocated the concept of commercial sex work. This position has no correspondence in the sordid reality whereby the trade is carried on in the sex districts.
Significant achievements have been made through years of hard struggle by the women’s movement, whereby prostitution is finally being viewed as involving trafficking of women and minors, requiring criminal action against traffickers, preventive measures in source districts and rehabilitative action in destination districts to free the survivors of trafficking from this worst form of exploitation and slavery.
Experience shows that, while rehabilitation is a long-drawn-out process and requires the support of family, community and/ or state, it is an achievable goal. The state has to play a proactive role towards formulating a policy and scheme for the rehabilitation of persons coming out of prostitution/ commercial sexual exploitation. This view clashes with the view that sex work is a free-choice income option for women in difficult circumstances. Any move to legalise prostitution is the logical conclusion to the latter view.
The writer is professor and chairperson, Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, TISS
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