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Prohibition of Solicitation in Public Misused? Old traditional Indian norms which can be found in the Indian Vedas as well as the Kamasutra point to the origination of the practice of trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation. It is referred to as an age-old practice where women were sold off for sexual purposes. This practice has evolved from then but is still prevalent in all parts of the country. However misuse of law has made life very difficult for women in the business. Chaitrali Tilak investigates into this evolving yet organized practice. On a bright sunny afternoon, as the temperatures being to rise, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city’s busiest area sits Laxmi*, on the first floor balcony of her ‘kotha*’, overlooking the street. The route to her room, yes that is all she lives in, is shady and one has to make their way thru an old narrow lane and up a dingy staircase, is dark, much like her life. The overpowering stench of garbage and something else that is not recognizable to the nose fills one in on their way up. Laxmi is one of those many Commercial Sex Workers (prostitutes) who live and carry out their business right in the heart of Pune. Old establishments surrounding the one she lives in are filled with women like her who trade sex for money. Laxmi is one of those many women who was lured at a very young age from her hometown under the pretext of a job and sold to the brothel keeper in Budhwar Peth*. Now here for almost 10 years, she tells tales of horror that she had to go thru, a sentiment echoed by most of the women around her.

In this modern day when poverty, illiteracy, diseases are some of the main issues that India has to battle to achieve complete development, prostitution can hardly be overlooked and ends up being a major issue that has to be dealt with effectively. This ‘profession’ is evolving continuously into an organized and complex institution. It is found that women are engaged into the profession by a person known to them who hands them over to traffickers.These women have been labeled as Commercial Sex Workers (CSW) which is a more formal word for the term ‘prostitute’. Every country on this planet is still battling with eradication of prostitution without obtaining 100 percent positive results. The statistics available in India however, are limited. India along with other countries has decided to provide these commercial sex workers with certain rights. In an act signed in 1956 for the suppression of Immoral Trafficking of Women and Girls, prostitution in itself is not an offence. It has its back draws though. It has been found out/ observed that the rights of these CSW’s/ victims of trafficking have been violated very often while pursuing the law. While this law states that a woman can voluntarily make use of her body for material benefits, soliciting in public is an offence, an act misused by the lawmakers a lot of times. Women like Laxmi have been victims of such falsity many times. Some of them recounted instances where they were arrested on a bus stand or in a market place when they were carrying out their own personal businesses. The red light area is adjacent to one of Pune’s biggest marketplaces and hence is a public area. Simran* who looks like she is in her mid-20’s is new to the area. She has been in this business for only 4 months now. A boy promising to marry her brought her to the city and sold her to the brothel keeper. “A boy in my town asked my hand in marriage and my parents agreed. He went out of town for a couple of months.

When he returned he told my parents that he had found a job in the city and wished to take me with him immediately. My parents trusted him and let me go. Soon I found myself being tortured and sold off. That is how I came here,” says she. When asked why doesn’t she just run away or complaint to the police she says, “Didi* what will I do after going back. People in our society are cruel and look down upon us. If my parents get to know of my reality they will disown me. Even if they did accept me others won’t let them live peacefully.” Simran’s parents still think she is married. She sends them some money every month. Stories similar to Simran’s are found to be in abundance amongst the women.

“We go on about doing our own business but the police trouble us a lot. They treat us very badly, sometimes even beating us up with sticks for no reason,” tells she while narrating an incident where she was put in the lock up for going to the chemist to buy medicines. It is pretty evident that the conditions these women have to live in are horrendous. However there are a few organizations that look after the welfare of these sex workers. They help them live an otherwise ordinary life apart from their business. Studies suggest that many of these workers suffer from aids, do not know what condoms are and hence end up getting pregnant which eventually leads to abortion, which

when done regularly has adverse effects on their health. They also lack the nutrition and the proper nourishment they need and are weak. An NGO based in the same area called Saheli has started a program of giving these sex workers at least 2 proper meals a day. They also started deposit banks in which the women are encouraged to save their money. It is with their help that women like Simran and others are educating themselves and finding part time work apart from their ‘business’.

It is pretty hard to find work somewhere else once you are in the prostitution business, a difficult all of them experienced. People treat them differently and not nicely. They are looked at as unemployable, women who bring shame to the otherwise perfect society. Even if they manage to find a job the police show up at their work place and arrest them. When a survey of 100 women was taken with the help of Saheli it was found out that 46% of women said that when they stepped out of their brothels for personal work they were arrested for soliciting in public. 38% said that although they were not arrested or fined, they were beaten up with sticks by the police. Only 16% of women said that they did not face any problems from the police. Most of these 16% women came from one particular brothel where they were hesitant to talk and hardly opened up, well aware that the brothel keeper had her eye on them. These women live in abysmal conditions. Along with arresting them the police torture them or charge them exorbitant fines. The financial conditions of these women are remorseful. They have to take care of their day to day supplies, children, pay for their health as well as repay the loans to their brothel keeper. The younger ones can charge more money to a customer. However there are many old CSW’s who have been doing this for a long time. They find it particularly difficult to meet their needs alongside facing the torture the police put them thru. Laxmi who is one of the elder ones in the house says that she doesn’t make as much money as she used to.

A wave of fury errupted in the nation after the brutal rape or a woman in Delhi. The girls died in the hospital a few days later. Protests were held when some of the media channels gave false reports on the girl being a prostitute

She has two children to provide to. Women like her have now sought the help of NGO’s for the sake of their children. The children are given proper nourishment, education and it is made sure that they are not forced into the profession. The brothel owners are sometimes kind women too but ultimately they have to do their business. The customers however can be arrogant, insulting, and forceful. These women have to fulfill the customer’s needs or things get ugly sometimes. One girl recounts an incidence where she refused to provide ‘service’ to a customer who was drunk and ended up in jail. The customer on hearing rejection went to the police station and complained against the girl stating that she accosted him outside her brothel and was forcing him to go with her. According to her, the police did not even verify the complaint and locked her up for a night accompanied by a hefty fine. The police station is not far from the red light area “you need to keep a watch on what happens there” a policeman will later tell me. They are too busy in there to pay attention to a young journalist. After having to wait for a long time an inspector who refuses to tell his name comes to talk about the ‘lies that have been told’. He dismisses the first question about the law saying he knows what the law is. Later when asked about the ill-treatment of the prostitutes for apparently soliciting in public he very rudely said, “It is all false. We know what goes on in the area. These women accost men and trap innocent men with their gestures. They stand on the roads which is an offence. This is a public place. Families with children stay in the neighborhood. Such women are a bad influence on the society. We try to control it.” When asked about the times when the CSW’s are arrested for stepping out of the house for their own chores, he said that it was all a pretense to lure in more customers and get more money. However on mentioning the ill-treatment given to these women he said, “What they are doing is wrong and they should get the punishment for that.” He refused to say more waving me off with, “The police are doing their job, let them do it in peace.”

The head of the department was not available for comment on the day but promised to get back to me as soon as possible. True to his word he replied after a few days. On a brief interview through the phone he said, “It is not always that the police are wrong. Yes sometimes mistakes happen but we are trying to curb them by taking strict action against the policemen who do things outside the law. We are supposed to protectors of the people and these women even though they are looked down upon by the society are a part of that same society and it is our duty to protect them.” He tells me that the law has been misunderstood by many. Therefore they sometimes have to suffer consequences of it. For example he says, “One of our team had arrested a prostitute on the road for soliciting in public but it turned out she was going to meet up with a friend. An NGO took up the issue and slapped a case against us. We admitted the mistake on our part but it was a black mark on the police force.” Although not all of what they do are mistakes. He tells me of an incident where just weeks before this interview, they caught an agent who provided ‘high class’ prostitutes for businessmen all around the country. “They were aspiring models whose careers had not taken off very well and thus forcing them to do this to earn more money. They had a learned agent who travelled with them all over India as they provided service to wealthy businessmen. You would be surprised to find out that they did earn a healthy sum every night.” According to him incidences as mentioned above are what the police are trying to prevent. “Although prostitution is illegal in India, it is very hard to eradicate it completely from the society. We do not have a problem if these women in Budhwar Peth are doing it on their own will. But if we get a come across any complaints or illegal activity we will take action against the guilty,” he said. While leaving India after Easter I walk back to meet Laxmi. The same old lane and up that dingy staircase I go. She is sitting there in her tiny balcony while her daughter is trying to do her homework. The look on her daughter’s face after I give her sweets I fills me up with joy and sadness at the same time. Helping her do her homework I fill up Laxmi with the entire story of my journey. She agrees with me that *bade sahib is a good man and trying to do his job. “But didi what will one man do for all of us. The people working under him should not corrupt.” After spending an hour with them I get up to leave, “Didi some things will never change,” says Laxmi as she waves me goodbye. *Laxmi, Simran – Name changed to protect identity *Kotha –Brothel *Budhwar Peth –Area in Pune for the CSW *Didi – Hindi word for sister *Bade Sahib – Literal translation means big man, the inspector in this case

Solicitation in public - a law misused by lawmakers in India  

This is an investigative feature in which I explore through the eyes of a commercial sex worker, the misuse of a law which prohibits solicit...