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Status of sex workers in Indian society

Authored By- Hemangee Sharma

Keywords- UNAIDS, Bengal Women's Union, The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, The Bachar Tribe, The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act, 1956


According to the methodology by UNAIDS, the number of sex workers was estimated to 660,000 in 2016. But, unofficial figures may be higher in number. Prostitution is legal in India[i] But, many brothels, prostitution in a hotel[ii], child prostitution, pimping, and pandering[iii] are illegal[iv]. Still, these are illegally operating in Indian cities including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai.[v]

The UNAIDS[vi] appraised that there were 657,829 prostitutes in the country in 2016.[vii] Organizations of sex workers, the United Nations (UN) agencies, and commissions have understood and articulated sex work as a sexual service that is negotiated between consenting adults.[viii]


Reasons why women enter into prostitution

Most researches show that prostitution is not a chosen profession but is owed to necessity; some enter in it because of a lack of resources and to support themselves or their children. So, if a lady gets involved in prostitution it is likely that her children will end up there as well.

A survey which was conducted in 1988 by the All Bengal Women's Union, examined a random sample of 160 sex workers in Calcutta. Out of these 160 sex workers, 23 said that they had come to work voluntarily, while the rest of 137 women informed that they were introduced by agents. Almost 5,000 prosecutions have been recovered so far under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.

In some areas, there is a tradition that women and girls are born and put into prostitution to support their families. The Bachar Tribe[ix] illustrates that, there is a tradition that the eldest daughter is often expected to be a prostitute.

Rights of Sex Workers

The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act, 1956

This Act prohibits prostitution within 200 yards from a public place. Sex Workers are not protected under normal labour laws. However, they enjoy the same rights and privileges as other citizens. But practically, the Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act, 1956 is not commonly used. Indian Penal Code is often used to persecute sex workers for public decency or public nuisance.

Status of Sex Workers

1) Violence

Sex workers face vulnerability to violence because of their profession. They are also human beings; they also need equal protection of laws against rape and all the other violence.

2) Trafficking and migration, leading to a denial of labour rights.

There is a difference between ''Trafficking'', ''Migration" and ''Sex worker". The SR-VAW examined that there was a tendency to conflate sex work with trafficking in persons. Sex workers are seen as trafficking victims because of following reasons:[x]

· Conflation with trafficking and resulting in rights violations

· Raids - A human rights violation of sex workers

· Rescue and rehabilitation.

· To prevent child prostitution and child sex tourism

3) Stigma in health care

Sex workers experience stigma and discrimination that erodes their ability to protect their health and well being. National Commission for women observed that accessing health care is the main issue.[xi]

In the case of Public At Large v. The State Of Maharashtra And Ors., on 31 July 1997[xii], The Supreme Court took suo moto notice of an article that appeared in the daily Indian Express dated 13th January, 1996. The said report disclosed a very shocking and alarming state of affairs regarding sex workers operating in the city of Mumbai. The report indicated that minor girls were illegally confined and were forced to be sex workers. Many prostitutes whose blood was tested were HIV positive. In so far as the report about AIDS amongst sex workers, it is stated that out of the 70,000 prostitutes in the red-light district, 65% were already infected with the dreaded AIDS disease and had been tested HIV positive.

Supreme Court recommendation on social entitlements, identification documents are as follows:

· Empowerment should be ensured for active participation and leadership of sex workers networks, federations, and collectives in designing policies and processes for accessing social entitlement.


Finally, it can be said that in the twenty-first century, where we are striving to provide basic human rights to all, efforts must be made to provide humane conditions to the sex-workers within their profession. The profession of sex-work can be ridden from the clutches of unscrupulous elements only when we change our mindset and our perceptions about sex-work. We must always keep in mind that a sex-worker working in a red light area is not doing so for the accumulation of wealth or for instant riches but for basic survival, it is a means for her to feed herself and her extended family who are in a majority of cases totally dependent on her income.

References- [i] The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 [ii] Sec 7 in The Immoral Traffic ( Prevention) Act,1956, (28 Nov 2015) [iii] 2008 Human Rights Report: India, U.S. Department of state, (25 Feb 2009). [iv] India Court raises the question of legalizing prostitution, BBC News, (10 Dec 2009). [v] Magdalena Rojas (12 Jun 2016). [vi] UNAIDS is to support an expanded response to HIV and AIDS which includes avoidance of transmission of HIV, providing care, and support to those who faced the virus and alleviating its impact of the epidemic. So they help to avoid the HIV/AIDS epidemic from becoming a severe pandemic. [vii] Sex Worker: Population Size estimate number, 2016,, Retrieved 21 July 2018. [viii]UNAIDS (2012) Technical Update Sex Work and HIV/AIDS, pg3. UNAIDS(2009)Guidelines note on HIV and sex work,pg15. [ix]Anuraag Singh (25 February 2014), Gujarat tribal sells daughter to prostitute racketeers in MP, held, Times of India. [x] All Bengal Women’s Union, End Slavery Now. Retrieved 28 January 2018. [xi] National Commission for Women, Societal Violence Against Women and Children in Protitution, NCW, New Delhi, 1997. [xii]