Sajad Farooq Rather writes about the trafficking of women and prostitution in India and what needs to be done to save them from getting exploited.  

Indian history is replete with stories of Tawaifs. A Tawaif was a highly sophisticated courtesan who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent. Famous Bollywood movie Devdas highlighted beautifully how women Tawaif’s were meant only to entertain people and have no life of their own. But Tawaifs had a class of their own and enjoyed a peculiar status in society as they were related to nobility. While for the majority of us, the birth of a baby (whether it’s a boy or a girl) brings joy, in India, it’s not the case for many families. Girls are unwanted and discriminated against all their lives simply because of their gender.

This discrimination can explain why girls are still pushed to unpleasant trade of prostitution which no more enjoys even the class of Tawaif. A prostitute is a person who is legally defined as one “who allows her body to be used for lewd purposes in return for payment”. Prostitution is the sale of sexual services for money. The very word itself speaks about the plight of women and the universality of this issue is no secret as it isn’t just India but throughout the world, prostitution has become a profession either of choice or compulsion. Prostitution is technically illegal but widely practiced in India today. By one count it is an 8 billion US dollars a year industry with more than two million prostitutes and 275,000 brothels. In another count in all of India, there are as many as 10 million commercial sex workers and their core clientele has traditionally been truck drivers, migrant workers and other men separated from their families for long periods of time.

Many teenage girls turn to prostitution to raise money for their families or out of the need for money to deal with a debtor a problem related to their husbands. Some village girls are tricked into entering the trade in the cities with promises of good money or another kind of job. One survey found that a third of all prostitute enter the trade because of poverty and more than a forth become prostitutes after marital problems.

Devadasi Custom

The prostitution has continued from ancient and medieval India but has now reached an alarming scale in modern India. The Devadasi system still continues, according to a report of the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India. “After initiation as Devadasis, women migrate either to nearby towns or other far-off cities to practice prostitution,” the report says.

The practice of dedicating Devadasis was declared illegal by the Government of Karnataka in 1982 and the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 1988. However, the practice is still prevalent in around 10 districts of north Karnataka and 14 districts in Andhra Pradesh. Districts bordering Maharashtra and Karnataka, known as the “Devadasi belt”, have trafficking structures operating at various levels. The women here are in prostitution either because their husbands deserted them, or they are trafficked through coercion and deception.

Compared to last century, today prostitution in India has flourished into a full-fledged multibillion-dollar industry alone in India, with around two hundred thousand brothels, millions of commercial sex workers and this all just for sake of money. “Most of these women were either forced by gang members and others to take up this profession or were betrayed with false promises of a job. Both the Government of India and the state governments have enacted statutes to repress and abolish prostitution.

By some estimates, child prostitution in India is a multi-billion dollar industry.

India may have half a million children in brothels, more than any other country in the world. Many are barely in their teens. A shocking number have HIV or AIDS. No children enter the prostitution trade on their free will. Some are runaways or victims of abuse. Other have been sold by their parents, abducted or enticed by gifts. Between 5000 and 7000 young girls are brought from Nepal to India to become prostitutes every year. Children are also brought in from Bangladesh. According to human rights groups, about 90 percent of the Bombay prostitutes are indentured servants, with close to half trafficked from Nepal. Some families sell their daughters into prostitution. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Nepalese women have been shipped to India as prostitutes and sex slaves, with between 5000 and 7000 new girls, usually between 10 and 20, arriving every year. Many of them are brought by traffickers who sell the girls for as little as 1000 US dollars a piece.

Prostitution itself is not illegal in India, but soliciting and public prostitution is illegal. Owning a brothel is also against the law, but, as places like GB Road and Kamathipura prove, these laws are rarely enforced. Prostitutes suffer from moral collapse and lose their status and position which other respectable men and women enjoy in society. Respectable people hate them, avoid their company and want to isolate them in society. As a result, the pimp and the prostitute become ‘hated and isolated islands’. They lead a life with their own definition of promiscuous sex conduct and immoral principles. This will be quite different from society’s conception of morality.


Ill-treatment by parents, bad company, family prostitutes, social customs, inability to arrange marriage, lack of sex education, media, prior incest and rape besides early marriage and desertion are some of the main causes of prostitution. Lack of recreational facilities, ignorance, and acceptance of prostitution too are cited as reasons. Economic causes include poverty and economic distress. Psychological causes include desire for physical pleasure, greed, and dejection. And although many laws have been made to protect them few are implemented. But why despite the fast-growing GDP and modernity does India still have a spiraling rate of honour killings, dowry deaths, acid attacks and trafficking and why do these crimes go unpunished, including the horrific crime of female infanticide? In a society where economics and hunger drive decisions, the girl child becomes a dispensable commodity.

For the Indian society, the protests over rape, prostitution, the angry morchas against dowry, the rising clamor for equality in jobs, in law, in education and in the eyes of society, are only the nascent awakening of a struggle. Yet, as it gathers momentum, it spells time for a reckoning. Formal education should be made available to those victims who are still within the school going age, while non-formal education should be made accessible to adults. Rehabilitation and reintegration of rescued victims being long-term recruitment of adequate number of trained counselors and social workers in institutions and homes run by the government independently or in collaboration with non-governmental organisations. Awareness generation and legal literacy on economic rights, particularly for women and adolescent girls should be taken up.

Girls and women are forced to take up this profession because of extreme poverty. Hence training and education should be provided to them. Imparting education, training and skills will increase the employability of women in the job market. Economic empowerment can prevent poor women from entering this degraded profession. The public should be enlightened on the legislation and if any such nuisances in the surrounding areas are found then, immediately one should come forward to report this event. Besides, films stimulating sex interest and pornographic literature should be discouraged. The present younger generation has free access to the internet. On the internet there are many sites which are capable of bringing down the moral standards among the youngsters, hence, parents should be cautious about the internet habits of their children.

Widow remarriage should be encouraged. With the Widow Remarriage Act, widows became free to marry. Unfortunately, the restriction of society on widow marriage has perpetuated. The system of dowry which debarred many girls from getting married should be discouraged. There is an urgent need to change the society’s attitude toward the widow marriage, dowry and Devadasi custom. Government of India and state governments through social welfare boards should prepare schemes for rehabilitation all over the country for physically and sexually-abused women commonly known as the “prostitutes” as prostitutes also have a right to live with dignity under Article 21of the Constitution of India since they are also human beings and their problems also need to be addressed. As already observed, a woman is compelled to indulge in prostitution not for pleasure but because of abject poverty. If such a woman is granted opportunity to avail some technical or vocational training, she would be able to earn her livelihood by such vocational training and skill instead by selling her body.


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