Sex is something that can be celebrated and positive, and it can also be a source of income for sex workers. For a vast number of women in India, though, sex is a dead-end profession and a last resort for a variety of reasons. The majority of women in the trade are brought into it through threats or because it is the only way they can earn money. Children have also been exploited in the sex trafficking realm.
Recently, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code decriminalized queer sex. While this is a great step forward for equality, especially for gay men who feared punishment or worse simply for having a relationship, it seems to only protect LGBTQ folks, mainly men. Pedophilia remain criminalized, but there are not a lot of protections in place for women and children.
Some of these brothels are legal, but if children are being forcefully brought into sex work, what protection does Section 377 bring to those in need of it? Who else benefits from the code?
According to Prajwaia, an anti-trafficking organization, 65,000 people under the age of 16 are trafficked every year. This happens because of a lack of money and resources. Some join the trade to escape from their abusive home lives.
Due to poverty, participating in sex work has become one of the only ways women can provide for themselves and their families. Some do not have access to other options for making money. Often, they tell their families they are working elsewhere.
Initially, brothels in India were put in place for soldiers to use under British rule. The brothels remain as a symbol of colonizalization. It appears the only protection given to the sex workers are the barred windows and doors of these brothels. Women in the sex work world are 13 times more likely get infected by HIV/AIDs, but many are unaware of the existence of the illness. The use of condoms is uncommon in these spaces as well.
The laws related to sex work in India state there is punishment for sex crimes. If the crime is organized, such as brothels or pimping, people will face up to three years in prison. India does allow for people to practice sex work to some degree; however there are restrictions. Performing publicly, near a public place, or in a methodized space is illegal. If a woman chooses to go into sex work, doing so individually and willingly, then, according to law, it is legal.
Many human rights activists and feminists believe that legalizing sex work can offer protection to the participants. However, this applies more to privileged countries like the U.S. where women have a choice in sex work and opt into the position as something they want to participate in. Often, sex workers in America are treated well, supported, and make a decent income. In India, the women who participate in sex work do not have access to medical or physiological treatment. The law lets women make money this way, but does not support them. The stigmas in India also make it nearly impossible for women to lead a successful life without being treated terribly after leaving the profession.
The Bottom Line
Supporting sex workers is important, and the decriminalization of queer sex is a huge milestone. But in India, women are mostly in sex work world due to poverty, and child sex workers are common. Sex work has become the only way for some people to meet their basic needs. The laws associated with prostitution are vague, and punishments are minimal if one is charged for a sex-related crime. There isn’t much protection for the underage girls being forced into sex slavery, and women who voluntarily enter are not given the proper protection needed. Condoms are rarely used and testing for sexually transmitted diseases is not offered.
With this update to laws and social norms in India, there should be more support for female sex workers and ending child prostitution. Children should be protected and families should not have to unwillingly resort to sex work for basic needs. Those in the industry by choice should have access to sexual protection, not just barred spaces.