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Tracing The History Of Prostitution And Sex Trafficking In India

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India has been classified as a Tier 2 country for over seven years running by the United Nations (2016). This designation means that while India meets the minimum standards of compliance, there’s a continued increase in human trafficking. This raises questions on patterns of sex trafficking in India.

The history of paid sex isn’t new or unique to India. The roots of trafficking are deeply embedded in our age-old traditional prostitution systems prevalent in several parts of the country, like the devadasi and the tawaifs. Trafficking is said to be a result of the vulnerable conditions of the women involved and situations are made worse by their social exclusion from the society due to the gender discrimination and inefficient development practices in the society that marginalises females from employment and education.

Historically in India, prostitution was a tolerated vocation. In fact, the history of many of the fashionable red-light establishments within the country dates back to the Mughal period. However, within the late nineteenth century, due to some structural changes in society, sex work came to be viewed as oppressive and exploitative for females.

Representational image.

While earlier the prostitutes were treated akin to entrepreneurs and enjoyed royal patronage wielding much considerable influence in state affairs, religious and political developments over centuries lead to the decline of the esteem of their work. After independence, when the princely states were abolished and the zamindari system was removed, the tawaifs or the prostitutes lost their royal patronage and clientele and gradually the tawaif system died out. Research suggests that the descendants of these tawaifs undertook bar dancing in metropolitan cities subsequent to the descent of the royal clientele, where they were not given equal respect which they so enjoyed before independence.

Evidence of females living on the earnings of their beauty is paramount within the history, documented in various epics in several contexts. Kautilya has written an in-depth treatise on prostitution in his book The Arthashastra. In this book, he has mentioned in detail about prevalent vocations practised by women, including the Rupjiva who made her living out of her beauty equivalent with an up to date prostitute.

Devadasi, a euphemism for temple prostitution, was another socially sanctioned form of prostitution in several parts of the country. Under the devadasi system, children were dedicated at puberty to the goddess Yellamma in her service and henceforth were referred to as a devadasi, or a servant of God. Religious and political developments over several centuries led to the decline within the situation of devadasis, who unable to sustain themselves turned to prostitution work for livelihood. Despite being banned by the law, it’s still prevalent in certain forms in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.

Prostitution has been also identified as a familial occupation among many tribal groups and communities like the Bedias in North India. The matter of debts of the families probably created situations where the poor succumbed to prostitute their females to flee debt bondage.

The imperial regime is understood for its state-regulated brothels especially in port cities of Bombay and Calcutta, catering to the sexual needs of soldiers, migrant men and sailors. Prostitution was earmarked in specific regions referred to as red light areas and was regulated by the state without discrimination.

However, a series of developments within the nineteenth century led to a drastic change within the outlook towards the prostitution as an entire in India also as elsewhere. Within the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of biological race emerged which regarded inbreeding to conserve racial purity as superior. The British regime thus, heavily focused on decreasing interracial breeding of the whites with other racial groups including Indians, to preserve their racial purity.

There was massive uproar among the general public too who demanded prohibition on interracial breeding which resulted within the imposition of the Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869. The Acts allowed for registration, examination and isolation of females who were thought to be working as prostitutes in military stations, garrisons and seaside towns across southern England and Ireland. Efforts were made to isolate prostitution in red-light zones or to get rid of state-controlled brothels from normal community life.

Trafficking is identified with general helplessness and is exacerbated by social exclusion dependent on gender and development processes that are discriminatory towards women. In the current social situation in India, vulnerability is a result of the imbalance of power, poverty, gender discrimination as well as the patriarchy unleashed on youngsters, particularly young females who are pushed into prostitution.

Representational image. Photo: Getty Images

These contextual factors can be classified into economic, political and social factors, the juxtaposition of which adds to the misery, fragility and vulnerability of the sex workers. Economic factors such as poverty are the primary component of the vulnerability of these women as diminished economic sustainability of the poor communities living in rural areas induced movement to urban centres for livelihood thereby making women and children vulnerable, who have been largely kept outside the sphere of economic self-determination.

Another massive factor which is social in nature is gender discrimination, a prominent determinant of susceptibility to trafficking. In India, socio-cultural set up is exceptionally slanted for males. Women face a lack of access to family assets including food, the property even personal space. In several communities, young females are undesirable and viewed as an obligation/”burden” on their families.

Education for the boy is seen as an investment to get more wages in the labour, parents visualise more direct benefits from investing on males because they may take care of and provide comfort to their parent’s in their old age, as daughters leave after marriage to join their in-law’s families.  Illiteracy is another major social factor contributing to their vulnerability as illiterate girls fail to understand the real motive of traffickers pretending to be kind, generous and caring, and hence, become easy prey to their camouflaged soft appearance.

Further, another common theme identified among trafficked victims is a history of violence, such as domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and institutional violence such as in orphanages which results in heightened vulnerability to exploitation and sexual re-victimisation. The growth of the capitalist economy has further stimulated commoditization of individuals which is also a potential risk factor to trafficking.

Image provided by the author.

Lastly, political factors such as the absence of appropriate government measures and schemes for women in distress and their neglect by the state due to power politics and the legal politics of anti-trafficking intervention is a bane for such people.

The overarching argument is that the interaction between structural elements such as economic deprivation and marketplace downturns, social inequality, attitudes to gender, demand for prostitutes and proximate elements such as lax countrywide and worldwide felony regimes, poor law enforcement, corruption, organized criminal entrepreneurship, weak schooling campaigns is key to understanding why some individuals are vulnerable to trafficking through the use of deception and coercion. It is this conjunction of factors which helps to explain in which and why vulnerability occurs.

Did you ever come across any instances where young boys are being sexually exploited? What do you think are the reasons that society tends to neglect these kinds of issues? Please share with us in the comments!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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