HIV/AIDS and Commercial Sexual Exploitation

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By Dr. Pravin Patkar
This article first appeared in the broadsheet DNA on 13 December 2015 as one half of an open debate in a piece titled “Two sides of the debate: Prostitution as livelihood or victimhood?”


We at Prerana believe in comprehensively protecting girls, young women and their children from being trafficked for sex trade and help them gain dignity and livelihood options. This understanding has come from working for decades in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest red-light district, where we often face dilemmas on intervention when mothers who have AIDS come to us with HIV positive children. Planning intervention strategies if the mother dies first or if the child dies first can be heart wrenching.
The national level HIV/AIDS control programme is entirely insensitive to such recurring tragedies of the suffocating darkness of the red-light areas. A darkness which got further poisoned with the advent of HIV/AIDS. Everyone wanted to blame prostituted women. The nation responded with a national programme of AIDS control, suspected to itself be controlled by multinational pharmacy majors. At the ground level, this programme was hijacked by sex traders and their advocates. Fearing customers would would run away from the trade they were desperate to save, they conspired to turn the threat into an opportunity by projecting themselves as primary movers of the national HIV/AIDS programme. Without a thought for the vulnerable…, they would only strive to popularise condom use.
This, when many like us working with the community for decades have never judged women in prostitution as immoral. In fact, we’ve consciously worked to overcome their incorrect self perception of being ‘morally loose’ and make them understand that they are the ‘wronged ones and not wrong’.
Sex traders harp on a false conflicting dichotomy of HIV/AIDS workers and anti-human trafficking civil society organisations when in reality the problem is that of sex traders operating as HIV/AIDS workers The latter are committed to protecting business interests of traffickers, brothel keepers, pimps and customers and mainly engage in condom promotion and getting the sex trade decriminalised (i.e. not to treat trafficking, kidnapping, confinement, pimping, brothel keeping, detaining someone for prostitution, inducing, buying selling someone for the sex trade as punishable crimes).

What the law says


The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 (revised in 1986) does not prevent an adult person from selling his/her bodily sex* in private premises to a heterosexual partner. It defines prostitution as ‘sexual exploitation of person for commercial purposes’ by dropping the previous 1956 definition ‘prostitution is sale of sex by a female’. Against organized sex trade, it penalizes brothel keeping, pimping, trafficking, procuring, detaining a victim, offering premise for brothel-keeping, seducing, soliciting etc which are essentially sex trade activities. In fact, this women-victim-friendly law suggests that magistrates don’t punish women booked under this law but orders the state to provide them alternate livelihood.
While the 1986 revision only bettered the law’s victim-friendliness, the Criminal Law Amendment 2013 in the Indian Penal Code has made it next only to the world’s best – Swedish law (the Nordic model) – on prostitution.
In a publication Muktatechi Bharari (Flight of Freedom) by SANGRAM and VAMP (a collective of sex workers), their leader Meena Seshu recommends girls be brought in the sex trade three-four years after menarche. Prostituted women on the other hand reiterate: “We don’t want our children to get into this trade. They shouldn’t suffer like we have.”
Studies on the devadasi system (Jogan Shankar, M. Sunder Raja), the biggest supplier of young girls for the sex trade in western India, establish that only pre-pubescent girls could be dedicated as devadasis. Most modern studies conclude that a large number (over 80 percent*) of victims in the sex trade are below 18 or trafficked when below 18. The sex trade predates on children!
The condom promotion programme protects customers not women. Credible research from sources supportive of ‘sex work’ also shows that a large number of prostituted women are HIV positive.

Appropriate Approach


Malaria cannot be controlled by merely distributing mosquito repellents and nets but by managing stagnant water properly. Similarly, scores of women – victims of discriminatory hierarchies of caste, class, status, gender, disadvantaged by several layers of marginalization from drought to gender-based violence and affected by personal tragedies like orphaning, domestic violence, sexual harassment at workplace – become easily available for sex trade that exposes them to fatal infections and condemns them to a life of indignity, stigma and discrimination. Projecting that as voluntary work chosen by the women adds insult to injury.
The sex traders’ representatives’ absurd theory of empowered prostituted women leaves many questions unanswered. Why are they several times more susceptible to HIV/TB? Why are many of these women homeless? Why do they shun cameras? Why do they complain of police extortion? Why can’t they on their own send children to good schools? Why don’t they have toilets/kitchens for themselves in brothels? Why do they end up begging in old age? Why don’t they have savings, health insurance and old age pension?
Why do they live in such filthy, stinking, dark and ill ventilated cubicles?
The destinations of human trafficking represent the modern form of slavery. They are incompatible with civilization and human rights. The crime syndicates must be busted and the guilty must be severely punished. Economic development policies that create large scale vulnerability, disintegrate indigenous protective mechanisms and support systems should be abandoned.

Posted by Siddharth Pillai at 2:29 PM

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