According to Human Rights Watch, there are approximately 15 million prostitutes in India. There are more than 100,000 women in prostitution in Bombay, Asia’s largest sex industry center. Girls in prostitution in India, Pakistan and the Middle East are tortured, held in virtual imprisonment, sexually abused, and raped. Girl prostitutes are primarily located in low-middle income areas and business districts and are known by officials. Brothel keepers regularly recruit young girls. Girl prostitutes are grouped as common prostitutes, singers and dancers, call girls, religious prostitutes or devdasi, and caged brothel prostitutes. 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. Many are devadasi dedicated into prostitution for the goddess Yellamma.
An oft-repeated cause of prostitution is poverty. But poverty is only one of the reasons. The helplessness of women forces them to sell their bodies. Many girls from villages are trapped for the trade in the pretext of love and elope from home only to find themselves sold in the city to pimps who take money from the women as commission. The other causes of prostitution include ill treatment by parents, bad company, family prostitutes, social customs, inability to arrange marriage, lack of sex education, media, prior incest and rape, early marriage and desertion, lack of recreational facilities, ignorance, and acceptance of prostitution. Economic causes include poverty and economic distress. Psychological causes include desire for physical pleasure, greed, and dejection.
Most enter involuntarily. India, along with Thailand and the Philippines, has 1.3 million children in its sex-trade centers. The children come from relatively poorer areas and are trafficked to relatively richer ones. India and Pakistan are the main destinations for children under 16 who are trafficked in south Asia. What is causing alarm both in governmental and NGO circles is the escalation in trafficking of young girls in the last decade. NGOs like STOP and MAITI in Nepal report that most trafficking in India (both trans-border and in-country) is for prostitution. And 60 per cent of those trafficked into prostitution are adolescent girls in the age group of 12 to 16 years. These figures are corroborated by a study done by the Department of Women and Children in 13 sensitive districts of Uttar Pradesh. It reveals that all sex workers who formed a part of this survey had entered the profession as young girls. Many transsexuals, called hijiras, are sex workers. The families of hijiras reject them. They face opposition from the public, and with the denial of employment they take to begging and then enter the sex market.
Globalization, professionalisation of trafficking syndicates, feminization of poverty and rise in sex tourism – all have contributed to an increase in trafficking. This problem is further compounded because of two factors: linkages of trafficking with the spread of HIV/AIDS and the clandestine nature of the activity. Studies now show that while women of all ages are more vulnerable to the infection than men, young girls are even more at risk because their genital tracts are immature. In addition, they have absolutely no control over sexual relations and sexual health. So a physical vulnerability is compounded by gender vulnerability. The study done in 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh shows that in a sample of 1,341 sex workers, brothel-based prostitution was 793 and family-based prostitution came close at 548.Since prostitution is not legal, the police can arrest sex workers at any time.
The police, whose main function is to protect and serve, turn out to be robbers stealing the little money that these workers “earn.” Interventions are increasingly based on issues like combating stigma related to HIV/AIDS, developing empowering strategies for victims and involving communities in the rehabilitation of rescued women and girls. But there is a lot that still needs to be done. Involvement of communities is of the greatest significance here since it has been seen that their families and communities do not accept rescued women and girls. The situation becomes worse if someone tests positive for HIV because she is immediately labeled a prostitute – a perception that creates a complex situation in the rehabilitation programmes. Even if trafficked returnees can avoid such treatment, they have few options for survival. What is needed is a multi-pronged strategy which can help in curbing trafficking and empowering communities and which also has scope for rescue and rehabilitation processes. The task is not just daunting; given the political priorities of most governments it is not given the importance it deserves.