Should sex be work, at all?
By Anurag Dey, Kolkata, Feb 14 : On Valentine's Day, when love is celebrated across the world, it might be opportune to consider the plight of those for whom sex is work.
The debate on whether sex trade should be allowed continues, and among those who seek abolition of the trade in sex is Ruchira Gupta, who holds that NGOs working with sex workers only contribute to the oppression of women, allowing prostitution to thrive.
"Many NGOs are more concerned about providing clients disease-free prostitutes," says Gupta, an activist who tries to influence policy on issues related to violence against women.
Known widely as a sex trafficking abolitionist, Gupta has been working for over 25 years against trafficking of women. She advocates the criminalisation of sex purchase, so that penal action can be taken against clients of prostitutes without harming the often poor and exploited woman sex workers.
"Prostitution is not a profession, but the oldest form of oppression of women," Gupta says.
Gupta feels trafficking is, in the main, for reasons of prostitution. She has been lobbying hard for criminalising sex purchase. She holds that if the demand for paid sex is attacked, the trade would die out.
However, NGOs working with sex workers have rubbished Gupta's claims.
"It is very easy for Gupta to make such a foolish comment, without ever working at the grassroots. Women are trafficked also for cheap labour and marriages. Will she now demand abolition of marriages and factories," asked Meena Saraswat Seshu, general secretary of Sangram - a Mumbai-based NGO.
Similar views were expressed by other NGO activists.
"Instead of trying to victimise sex workers and the trade itself, she (Gupta) should focus on preventing trafficking. Then she would get the support of all NGOs," Mahasweta Mukherjee of the city-based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee said.
Gupta, founder-director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a Kolkata-based organisation working against sex trafficking, has received several international awards, including a 2009 Clinton Global Citizen award and the British House of Lords Abolitionist award.
She also received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for her 1996 documentary, "The Selling of Innocents".
Gupta lobbied the United Nations during the formulations for the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, resulting in the first UN instrument to address demand in the context of trafficking in Article 9, of the Protocol, passed in 2000.
The protocol, which has been ratified by more than 100 countries, criminalises sex purchase - the demand side of the sex trade. In the process, it shifts the blame from the supply side, comprising mostly marginalised women, subjected to trafficking.
"Indian laws are archaic. Countries like Sweden and Norway have adopted the trafficking definition given in the UN protocol. In the last decade, trafficking in both these countries has come down by as much as 60 percent," Gupta said.
Gupta, however, expressed happiness over the government's recent move to amend the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA), proposing to punish a person visiting a brothel with the purpose of buying sex.
The definition of a brothel under the ITPA now is very wide. Not just red light districts, but any house, room, conveyance or place where sex is being bought by a "client" would be defined as a brothel.
The proposal comes against the backdrop of the brutal gangrape of a paramedical student in South Delhi Dec 16.
"Sex trade is demand-driven. Unless there are laws preventing this demand, sex trade cannot be eliminated," Gupta said.
While Gupta may express her happiness at the proposed law, there are many skeptics, even among sex workers.
"This new law will expose us to severe exploitation," a Kolkata sex worker said.
"Prostitutes do not have any legal rights. The proposed law will snatch away their livelihood, making their living condition worse," Supreme Court advocate Priya Hingorani said.
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at email@example.com)