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Prostitution in India

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Prostitution in India

Legal status of prostitution across Asia.
  Prostitution legal and regulated
  Prostitution (the exchange of sex for money) legal, but organized activities such as brothels and pimping are illegal; prostitution is not regulated
  Prostitution illegal
  No data

In India, prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) is not illegal,[1] but a number of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering, are crimes.[2]


In ancient India, there was a practice of the rich asking Nagarvadhu to sing and dance, noted in history as "brides of the town". Famous examples include Amrapali, state courtesan and Buddhist disciple, described in "Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu" by Acharya Chatursen and Vasantasena, a character in the classic Sanskrit story of Mricchakatika, written in the 2nd century BC by Śūdraka.

Goa, which was a former Portuguese colony in India, during the late 16th and 17th centuries, was a Portuguese stronghold with community of Portuguese slaves such as Japanese slaves, who were usually young Japanese women and girls brought or captured as sexual slaves by Portuguese traders and their captive South Asian lascar crew members from Japan.[3]

During the British East India Company's rule in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British set up comfort zones for British troops wishing to make young girls and women into sex tools to satisfy the British soldiers who frequently set up their own prostitution rings. A write up by the BBC of England states that British troops helped to establish prostitution dens across India in capitals such as Mumbai which is now the hot bed of child prostitution,[4] Indian lascar seamen who were forced into the British military to the United Kingdom copied the masters by joining the British forces on frequent visits to the local British prostitutes there.[5][6] In the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of women and girls from continental Europe and Japan were trafficked into British India, where they worked as prostitutes servicing British soldiers and local Indian men.[7][8][9]


Government organisations like MDACS (Maharashtra District AIDS Control Society) have played a very prominent role in generating awareness on HIV/AIDS through the assistance in providing free literature and organising street campaigns. There are several NGO that feed on funds for protecting STI/STDs spread to common population NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation), a government agency lead these NGOs.[10]


There are an estimated two million female sex workers in the country.[11] In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of over 3 million female sex workers in India, with 35.47 percent of them entering the trade before the age of 18 years.[12][13] The number of prostitutes rose by 50% between 1997 and 2004. [14]

Areas of work

A lane in Kamathipura, a red light district in Mumbai.

Brothels are illegal de jure but in practice are restricted to certain areas of any given town. Though the profession does not have official sanction, little effort is made to eradicate or impede it.

India's largest[15] and best-known red-light districts are Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai and G. B. Road in New Delhi, that host thousands of sex workers.[16] Earlier, there were centres such as Naqqasa Bazaar in Saharanpur, Chaturbhuj Sthan in Muzaffarpur, Meerganj in Allahabad and Kabadi bazar of Meerut.

Underage prostitution

Surveys show there are an estimated 1.2 million children involved in prostitution.[17]


Much new knowledge on sex work in India came from the first major survey, in April 2011.[18] This was performed by the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM), which is part of SANGRAM,[19] a major NGO that deals with sex workers.

Legal status

The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as brothels, prostitution rings, pimping, etc.) is illegal. As long as it is done individually and voluntarily, a woman (male prostitution is not recognised in any law in India but even consensual anal intercourse is illegal under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) can use her body in exchange for material benefit. In particular, the law forbids a sex worker to carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place. Unlike as is the case with other professions, sex workers are not protected under normal labour laws, but they possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire and possess all the rights of other citizens.

In practice SITA is not commonly used. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which predates the SITA is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as "public indecency" or being a "public nuisance" without explicitly defining what these consist of. Recently the old law has been amended as The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA. Attempts to amend this to criminalise clients [21] have been opposed by the Health Ministry,[22] and has encountered considerable opposition.[23] In a positive development in the improvement of the lives of female sex workers in Calcutta, a state-owned insurance company has provided life insurance to 250 individuals.[24]

Over the years, India has seen a growing mandate to legalise prostitution, to avoid exploitation of sex workers and their children by middlemen and in the wake of a growing HIV/AIDS menace.[25][26][27]

Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act - PITA

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA is a 1986 amendment of legislation passed in 1956 as a result of the signing by India of the United Nations' declaration in 1950 in New York on the suppression of trafficking.[28] The act, then called the All India Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA), was amended to the current law. The laws were intended as a means of limiting and eventually abolishing prostitution in India by gradually criminalising various aspects of sex work. The main points of the PITA are as follows:[29]

  • Sex Workers: A prostitute who seduces or solicits shall be prosecuted. Similarly, call girls can not publish phone numbers to the public. (imprisonment up to 6 months with fine, point 8)
    Sex worker also punished for prostitution near any public place or notified area. (Imprisonment of up to 3 months with fine, point 7)
  • Clients: A client is guilty of consorting with prostitutes and can be charged if he engages in sex acts with a sex worker within 200 yards of a public place or "notified area". (Imprisonment of up to 3 months, point 7) The client may also be punished if the sex worker is below 18 years of age. (From 7 to 10 years of imprisonment, whether with a child or a minor, point 7)
  • Pimps and babus: Babus or pimps or live-in lovers who live off a prostitute's earnings are guilty of a crime. Any adult male living with a prostitute is assumed to be guilty unless he can prove otherwise. (Imprisonment of up to 2 years with fine, point 4)
  • Brothel: Landlords and brothel-keepers can be prosecuted, maintaining a brothel is illegal. (From 1 to 3 years imprisonment with fine for first offence, point 3) Detaining someone at a brothel for the purpose of sexual exploitation can lead to prosecution. (Imprisonment of more than 7 years, point 6)
  • Procuring and trafficking: A person procures or attempts to procure anybody is liable to be punished. Also a person who moves a person from one place to another, (human trafficking), can be prosecuted similarly. (From 3 to 7 years imprisonment with fine, point 5)
  • Rescued Women: The government is legally obligated to provide rescue and rehabilitation in a "protective home" for any sex worker requesting assistance. (Point 21)

Public place in context of this law includes places of public religious worship, educational institutions, hostels, hospitals etc. A "notified area" is a place which is declared to be "prostitution-free" by the state government under the PITA. Brothel in context of this law, is a place which has two or more sex workers (2a). Prostitution itself is not an offence under this law, but soliciting, brothels, madams and pimps are illegal.[30]

Political and legal debates

Clauses in the ITPA relating to living of the earnings are being challenged in court, together with criminalisation of brothels, prostitution around a notified public place, soliciting and the power given to a magistrate to evict sex-workers from their home and forbidding their re-entry. other groups are lobbying parliament for amendments. [31][32] The apex court accepted to examine the plea of the Central Government that sex workers should not be allowed to operate under the cover of working "with dignity". The government counsel contended that any such endorsement by the court would be ultra vires of ITPA which totally bans prostitution.[33]

Reasons for entry

Most of the research done by Sanlaap indicates that the majority of sex workers in India work as prostitutes due to lacking resources to support themselves or their children. Most do not choose this profession but out of necessity, often after the breakup of a marriage or after being disowned and thrown out of their homes by their families. The children of sex workers are much more likely to get involved in this kind of work as well. A survey completed in 1988 by the All Bengal Women's Union interviewed a random sample of 160 sex workers in Calcutta: Of those, 23 claimed that they had come of their own accord, whereas the remaining 137 women claimed to have been introduced into the sex trade by agents. The breakdown was as follows:

  • Neighbour in connivance with parents: 7
  • Neighbours as pimps (guardians not knowing): 19
  • Aged sex workers from same village or locality: 31
  • Unknown person/accidental meeting with pimp: 32
  • Mother/sister/near relative in the profession: 18
  • Lover giving false hope of marriage or job and selling to brothel: 14
  • Close acquaintance giving false hope of marriage or job: 11
  • "Husband" (not legally married): 3
  • Husband (legally married): 1
  • Young college student selling to brothel and visiting free of cost: 1

The breakdown of the agents by sex were as follows: 76% of the agents were female and 24% were males. Over 80% of the agents bring young women into the profession were known people and not traffickers: neighbors, relatives, etc.

Also prevalent in parts of Bengal is the Chukri System, whereby a female is coerced into prostitution to pay off debts, as a form of bonded labour. In this system, the prostitute generally works without pay for one year or longer to repay a supposed debt to the brothel owner for food, clothes, make-up and living expenses. In India, the Government's "central sponsored scheme" provides financial or in-kind grants to released bonded labourers and their family members, the report noted, adding over 2,850,000 people have benefited to date. Almost 5,000 prosecutions have been recorded so far under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976.

Some women and girls are by tradition born into prostitution to support the family. The Bachara, for example, follow this tradition with eldest daughters often expected to be prostitutes.

Over 40% of 484 prostituted girls rescued during major raids of brothels in Mumbai in 1996 were from Nepal.[34] In India as many as 200,000 Nepalese girls, many under the age of 14, have been sold into sexual slavery. Nepalese women and girls, especially virgins, are favoured in India.[35][36]

Sex worker health

Living with dignity - Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta) have the country's largest brothel based sex industry, with over 100,000 sex workers in Mumbai.[37] It is estimated that HIV among prostitutes have been largely fallen, in last decade.[38]

A positive outcome of a prevention programme among prostitutes can be found in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. The education programme targeted about 5,000 female prostitutes. A team of two peer workers carried out outreach activities including education, condom promotion and follow-up of STI cases. When the project was launched in 1992, 27% of sex workers reported condom use. By 1995 this had risen to 82%, and in 2001 it was 86%.

Reaching women who are working in brothels has proven to be quite difficult due to the sheltered and secluded nature of the work, where pimps, Mashis, and brothel-keepers often control access to the women and prevent their access to education, resulting in a low to modest literacy rate for many sex workers.

Not only HIV, but other infection diseases have been decreased, examined data from 868 prevention projects — serving about 500,000 female sex workers — implemented between 1995 and 2008. Research found that reaching sex workers through prevention programs decreased HIV and syphilis infection rates among young pregnant women tested routinely at government' prenatal health clinics.[39]


Girls from Arabia, Japan,[40] Russia, Bangladesh,[41] Sri Lanka[42] and from other origins have been noted as working as prostitutes in India.

Popular culture

Prostitution, has been a theme in Indian literature and arts for centuries, Mrichakatika a ten-act Sanskrit play, was written by Śhudraka in the 2nd century BC. It entails the story of a courtesan Vasantsena. It was made into Utsav, a 1984 Hindi film. Amrapali (Ambapali) the nagarvadhu of the Kingdom of Vaishali famously became a Buddhist monk later in the life, a story retold in a Hindi film, Amprapali (1966).[43]

Tawaif, or the courtesan in the Mughal era, has been a theme of a number of films including Pakeezah (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981), Tawaif (film) (1985), and Umrao Jaan (2006 film). Other movies depicting lives of prostitutes and dancing girls are Sharaabi, Amar Prem (1972),Mausam (1975) Mandi (1983), Devdas (2002), Chandni Bar (2001), Chameli (2003), Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), Dev D (2009), B.A. Pass (2013) and Thira (2013).

Born into Brothels, a 2004 American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata, won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2004.[44]

Child prostitution is also an issue in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. Chaarfutiya Chhokare a Hindi upcoming film directed by Manish Harishankar has also dealt with the problem of child prostitution in India very strongly.

Lakshmi is a 2014 Hindi social problem film, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor. The film deals with the harsh realities of human trafficking and child prostitution, which continue behind closed curtains in rural areas of India

See also


  1. ^ "Prostitution: should the laws be changed?".  
  2. ^ 2008 Human Rights Reports:India
  3. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan,  
  4. ^ BBC News - Horrors of India's brothels documented
  5. ^ Fisher, Michael Herbert (2006), Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Traveller and Settler in Britain 1600-1857, Orient Blackswan, pp. 106, 111–6, 119–20, 129–35, 140–2, 154–8, 160–8, 172, 181,  
  6. ^ Fisher, Michael H. (2007), "Excluding and Including "Natives of India": Early-Nineteenth-Century British-Indian Race Relations in Britain", Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27 (2): 303–314 [304–5],  
  7. ^ Fischer-Tiné, Harald (2003), "'White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths': European networks of prostitution and colonial anxieties in British India and Ceylon ca. 1880-1914", Indian Economic Social History Review 40 (2): 163–90,  
  8. ^ Tambe, Ashwini (2005), "The Elusive Ingénue: A Transnational Feminist Analysis of European Prostitution in Colonial Bombay", Gender & Society 19 (2): 160–79,  
  9. ^ Enloe, Cynthia H. (2000), Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives,  
  10. ^ New breed of elite call girls cater to India's rich CNN-IBN, Sep 20, 2008.
  11. ^ Casciani, Dominic (10 December 2009). "India's Supreme Court has asked the government to consider whether it might legalise prostitution if it is unable to curb it effectively". BBC News. Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  12. ^ Around 3 mn prostitutes in India UNODC, May 8, 2007
  13. ^ BBC report on number of female sex workers in India BBC News.
  14. ^ Prostitution 'increases' in India BBC News, July 3, 2006
  15. ^ Inside the streets of Asia’s largest red light area- ‘Sonagachi’
  16. ^ Sex tourism, Incredible India's dark side CNN-IBN.
  17. ^ "More than 1M child prostitutes in India".  
  18. ^ Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers April 2011
  19. ^ SANGRAM
  20. ^ "India court raises question of legalising prostitution". 
  21. ^ [1] LEADER ARTICLE: Sex Workers Need Legal Cover-Editorial-Opinion-The Times of India
  22. ^ [2] 'Sex workers' clients shouldn't be penalised'-India-The Times of India
  23. ^ [3] LEADER ARTICLE: Sex Work Is No Crime-Editorial-Opinion-The Times of India
  24. ^ "India sex workers get life cover". BBC News. May 1, 2008. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  25. ^ A mandate to legalise prostitution The Times of India, August 25, 2003.
  26. ^ India's sex trade exposed The Independent, 29 November 2008.
  27. ^ Legalise Prostitution in India to address Problems of Sex Industry
  28. ^ [4] The Immoral traffic Prevention Act
  29. ^ [5] Immoral Trafficking Act
  30. ^ [6]
  31. ^ Sex workers rue discrimination against their children. Deccan Herald March 7 2011
  32. ^ Lawyers Collective: Sex Workers meet law makers. March 1 2011
  33. ^ "Sex workers cannot operate in any manner, Centre tells SC". 12 July 2012. 
  34. ^ "S. Asia Urged to Unite Against Child Prostitution", Reuters, June 19, 1998.
  35. ^ Millions Suffer in Sex Slavery
  36. ^ [7] Fair skin and young looks: Nepalese victims of human trafficking languish in Indian brothels
  37. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: India", US State Department, 2001.
  38. ^ HIV prevention programmes for female prostitutes in India highly effective
  39. ^ HIV prevention programmes for female prostitutes in India highly effective June 17, 2013
  40. ^ Unreal cities: Bombay, London, New York
  41. ^ "Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation - Bangladesh". Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  42. ^ "Meeting Pakistani prostitutes". BBC. 2009-08-31. 
  43. ^ Amprali at the Internet Movie Database.
  44. ^ "NY Times: Born into Brothels", NY Times, retrieved 2008-11-23 


  • History of Prostitution in India, by S. N. Sinha. Published by Bengal Social Hygiene Association, 1933.
  • Reporting on Prostitution: The Media, Women and Prostitution in India, Malaysia and the Philippines, by Lois Grjebine, UNESCO. Published by Unesco, 1985.
  • Prostitution in India, by Santosh Kumar Mukherji, Biswanath Joardar. Published by Inter-India Publications, 1986. ISBN 81-210-0054-8.
  • The Castaway of Indian Society: History of Prostitution in India Since Vedic Times, Based on Sanskrit, Pāli, Prākrit, and Bengali Sources, by Sures Chandra Banerji, Ramala Banerji. Published by Punthi Pustak, 1989. ISBN 81-85094-25-X.
  • Child Prostitution in India, by Joseph Anthony Gathia, Centre of Concern for Child Labour. Published by Concept Pub. Co., 1999. ISBN 81-7022-771-2.
  • Immoral Traffic - Prostitution in India, by V. Sithannan. Published by JEYWIN Publications. ISBN 81-905975-0-7.
  • Broken Lives: Dalit Women and Girls in Prostitution in India, by M. Rita Rozario. Published by Ambedkar Resource Centre, Rural Education for Development Society, 2000. ISBN 81-87367-02-4.
  • Gomare et al. 2002. Adopting strategic approach for reaching out to inaccessible population viz Abstract WePeF6707F abstract, The XIV International AIDS Conference.
  • Trafficking in Women and Children in India, by P. M. Nair, Sankar Sen, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, India. National Human Rights Commission, UNIFEM South Asia Regional Office, New Delhi. Published by Orient Blackswan, 2005. ISBN 81-250-2845-5.
  • INDIA & Southeast Asia to 1875, Beck, Sanderson. ISBN 0-9762210-0-4

External links

  • US State Department Annual Human Rights Reports about India
  • Rape For Profit -- Human Rights Watch Report
  • Navjeevan Mumbai Sex work outreach NGO
  • Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956
  • Legalise prostitution in India to address problems of sex industry
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