The Legality of Sex Work in India


Scintillating glass bangles and curvy traces, red pouts and hair adorned with jasmine; lascivious manoeuvres of hemlines too short: illegal by night, ostracised by day. This is a plausible melange of the imagery that term sex worker arouses. Gratifying the hushed desire of millions, a ‘vice’ that is most pronounced in the night and silenced out of existence in the day. An outcast community, with needs and desires as mainstream as us, these sex workers, live outside of  the law.

Sex work in India is governed by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Although sex work is not illegal according to the Act, supporting activities such as maintenance of brothels or soliciting customers are punishable offences.

Brothels are defined by the Act to include “any house, room, conveyance or place, or any portion of any house, room, conveyance or place which is used for the purposes of sexual exploitation or abuse for the gain of another person or for the mutual gain for two or more prostitutes.” The Act criminalises any sex work within a 200m radius of any public place, including hotels. Moreover, the Act also penalises any entity who owns or knowingly supports prostitution in his/her premises and also prosecutes any adult over eighteen years of age, who lives on the earnings of a prostitute.

Before we delve into critiquing the vices and virtues of this Act, it is important to understand the nature of the controversial sex industry, trace its roots and illuminate the reasons why people choose to be or end-up being sex workers.

Surprisingly, prostitution is often deemed to be the oldest profession and can be traced back to the ancient Babylons. Ancient Indian literature is also replete with references to prostitution, a prominent example of which is Chanakya’s ‘Arthashastra’ where he clearly and meticulously writes about prostitution and its code of practice. This clearly suggests that prostitution has its roots in ancient India and is not a manifestation of decadence, as is sometimes claimed. Further, it is important to emphasise that the fact that this practice found a place in sacrosanct literature, including the Vedas and the Arthashastra, implies that prostitution was not an underground practice. Rather, it was a well-acknowledged, mainstream activity. This should raise some eyebrows the next time ‘culture’ is put forth as a reason to look down upon sex workers.

Although current estimates about the number of prostitutes is not available, a 2007 report submitted to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, reported that there are 3 million sex workers in India with 35.4% of them being less than 18 years old. Often, millions of sex workers are coerced into prostitution and continue to be victims of human trafficking and forced sex. However, there are millions of other women who turn to sex work to escape abject poverty. The law thus has to be designed to protect both the victims of sex slavery as well as people who voluntarily choose to take up prostitution as their profession.

Before we begin to develop opinions about people who willingly work as prostitutes, it is important to remember Atticus Finch’s advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around”.

The ability to discern and choose between morality and immorality is a prerogative of privilege. How would you respond to this question raised by a sex worker, “So what if I have to sell my body to make money? I want my daughter to have a better life. Is that too much to ask for?”

The fact that we, the constituents of the mainstream society, had an opportunity to attend school, to pursue our interests and take up professions we were passionate about, is a privilege that not everybody has access to. The fact that our families had enough financial resources to protect and promote our physical and intellectual well-being is a privilege that not everybody has access to. Given a choice between being destitute on the streets and lulling hungry children to sleep every night or working as a sex worker and expanding the opportunities for their children, these women choose the latter. Would you still look down upon them as immoral? Put in the situation that they are in, would you be able to care about philosophical concepts of morality?

Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

On the other end of the spectrum, there are women and girls who were duped into sex work — victims of sex trafficking who continue to face sexual exploitation every day. According to statistics published by the Government of India, almost 20,000 women and children were victims of sex trafficking in India in 2016. However, as a Delhi police official pointed out, the actual figure could be much higher as many victims were still not registering cases with the police, largely because they did not know the law or feared traffickers. Sex trafficking is partly a manifestation of misogyny and partly a manifestation of socio-economic vulnerabilities of the disadvantaged sections of the Indian society, who are tricked into prostitution under the masquerade of promises of a good job or better life.

10-year-old Gita was sold into prostitution by her aunt. Now, 22-year-old Gita recalls how she was pinned to the ground by other sex workers, her mouth stuffed with a cloth so that no one could hear screams as the customer raped her. She contracted HIV.

In this light, we can now understand why the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act is not comprehensive enough to regulate the Indian sex industry, prevent trafficking and supporting sex workers and victims.

The fact that the Act criminalises brothels, which includes two or more women working together as prostitutes, implies that if women want to work as sex workers legally, they should do so alone. Further, the compulsion that sex work shouldn’t be within a 200m radius of any public place again implies that to engage in prostitution legally, an isolated location should be chosen. These aspects of the Act make sex workers more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Moreover, sex workers who are often exploited by pimps or brothel owners can’t take the resort of the legal system because, under the law, they will be prosecuted for working in a brothel and hence, they silently continue to suffer at the hands of brothel owners. Section 8 of the Act notably criminalises the act of seduing or soliciting customers. Though the Act may not prohibit prostitution, it certainly makes it very difficult for sex workers to legitimately exercise their right to work.

Criminalising brothels, soliciting and the practice of prostitution in proximity to public places in an attempt to curtail prostitution has clearly failed, which is patently evident from the fact that metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Kolkata boast red light areas of  Kamathipura and Sonagachi respectively, which rank as some of the largest red light areas in Asia. The Act has  made sex workers more vulnerable by forcing them to work in the darker, more invisible corners of the cities, silently suffering exploitation. This seclusion of sex workers also implies that they are left in oblivion about access to information about and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, which they are most at risk of contracting. Further, it also means that they can’t access public facilities like public hospitals, colleges and schools, the access to which are quintessential for them to expand their opportunities and improve the quality of their lives.

Mainstreaming sex work, easing access to birth control methods and medical aid together with educational opportunities will not only enable sex workers to live a more normal life but will also work to a great extent to prevent their exploitation because they will no longer be vulnerable to their perpetrators.

The Act does not do a great job with prevention of sex trafficking, either. The Act mandates that victims rescued from the sex trade remain within a ‘protective home’ until the court orders their release. These protective homes are more like a prison, with the one in Mumbai having three barred gates before the women’s living quarters. ‘The women usually stand behind these doors, asking staff or visitors like myself, police personnel or NGO representatives when they would be released,” writes Ms Vibhuti Ramachandran, whose research is focused at the intersection of law and sex trade in India, in her article: Rescued But Not Released. These women are held in protective homes until the magistrate decides the suitability of their guardians. Often, the legal formalities mean that these women end up being forced to remain in protective homes beyond the 3 week period allocated for court procedures. This is applicable for women who are older than 18 years and their consent or opinion doesn’t find a formal place in the entire process. After a harrowing experience, a broken mind and body, victims of sex trafficking need emotional, mental and physical care to allow them to heal and grow. Although intended to ensure the safety of these women, this aspect of the Act almost makes them crave for relief and rescue all over again — initially from the clutches of their exploiters and now from ‘protective homes’. The entire process of rescuing victims of sex trafficking and transitioning them into the mainstream society requires a more empathetic perspective for women, with due respect to free consent and the choice of these human beings.

Thus, if the intention of the legislation is to protect sex workers and victims of sex trafficking and provide them with opportunities for growth, it is indispensable to understand their problem from their perspective and make them a part of the decision-making process instead of ignoring their voice and consent. It is important to understand the nuanced differences between the motivations of why some people voluntarily choose to do sex work and address their interests and at the same time is important to punish sex traffickers and rehabilitate women who were forced into sex work. A more inclusive legislation — legislation for sex workers and trafficked women and not for the upholding ideals of socially construed morality is the need of the hour and this is only possible, when we lend an ear to their voices.

Miranda Kane, a former sex-worker says: “I would like to gently suggest to you, when a sex worker talks, you listen. If you want to make laws that affect us, consult us. There should be nothing about us, without us.”

Sara Sethia is a Research Associate (Gender Justice) at One Future Collective.

Featured image:

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

What Your Anti Sexual Harassment Policy Should Look Like (But Does Not)


Welcome to this guide for designing anti sexual harassment policies for your workplace or educational institutions that I would like to call, “Believe Survivors” or more colloquially, “Fuck Patriarchy”.

In any other scenario I would have started out writing this article by establishing context, by building a reference to recent news pieces that highlighted how men are getting away with sexually harassing women, but do I really need to? I know that each of you reading this has had an incident come to mind as soon as you started reading this, either one that is personal or one that you read or heard about.

1. Start with following the law. Sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions is illegal (as are all other forms of sexual harassment, even if conviction rates in India would lead you to believe otherwise). The law outlines what constitutes such harassment and details redressal mechanisms to be followed within the organisation for addressing such complaints. For survivors reading this, you can directly go to the police too, the internal mechanism is an alternative that you get to choose – not one that is meant to be imposed upon you

2. Now let’s get real, the law will not solve everything, you will have to. You cannot have a compliant legal system in place on one hand and perpetrate an environment that is sexist and inbred with hallmarks of rape culture. Breakdown the boys club vibe that you have going, shut down that joke about rape – it is never funny, don’t ask a female colleague to dress up “sexy” for a client meeting. Really, stop.

3. Gender sensitisation and anti sexual harassment trainings are a great long term solution and are very necessary, but survivors should not have to go through what they do in the pursuit of this long term goal. Start penalising. Take away jobs, promotions, social capital. Don’t invite speakers that have sexually harassed someone and not been penalised for it. Don’t hire such staff. Take away a prestigious student position if that student sexually harasses someone. Make it clear that the organisation won’t stand for sexual harassment and that there will be real life consequences.

4. What about people in your organisations that perpetrate sexual violence outside of your organisation? Apply the same principles to them. Make it known that you will not tolerate any sexual harassment, even if penetrated outside your organisation, and that this would be a valid reason for penalising them. Try and provide support to those survivors when you can as well, very often they will be partners or spouses of those working at your organization.

5.How do you decide the lines with regard to sexual harassment and flirtations at educational institutions and workplaces when most people meet new people at such settings? It’s quite simple really, you make the consent principle clear before you even hire a person. You need to make sure that everyone at the organisation knows a basic rule, that of asking before proceeding with anything other than a friendship. And before you ask, asking for consent never ruins a “moment”, even if it does, consent trumps everything. Start advocating for an explicit, enthusiastic yes rather than the mere absence of a no.

6. Ensure that there are protective measures for when someone at your organisation raises a complaint with regard to being sexually harassed. The perpetrator knows who they have harassed, they mostly have the contact details and other private information about that person. In work and educational setups they are often people in more senior positions, ergo those with more power, more money, more reach. There is nothing to say that someone who sexually harasses another person won’t harass them further in other ways when that person reports them.

7. In case the survivor chooses to take legal action via the criminal justice system, support them, do not alienate them.

8. What aftercare measures do you have? Do you even have aftercare measures? Even when survivors are able to secure justice through the legal procedure, they tend to leave that place of work in a few months. The place can often be a reminder of what survivors have been through. Ensure that you provide them with free mental healthcare and rally support and funds for any other form of financial or physical care they may require. Give them time off, give them control over their surroundings, let them decide – support their decisions. If they do decide to leave, help them transition to another job, do not make the sexual harassment they have faced a part of what you communicate to their new workplace without their consent.

9. Reporting is not something that a survivor owes you. Stop putting the onus of prevention of sexual harassment in the future on the survivor by using that to pressurise the to report. Their experiences and their story is their own to tell. It is your job to build a culture that prevents such acts from even happening. Also, do not blame them or penalise them for reporting after a certain duration of time. Yes, reporting is extremely important for a multitude of reasons, but do not shift the narrative and the responsibility of prevention on the survivor.

Don’t just preach these measures verbally or use them to market your organisation. Write this down. Make it part of your company policy and thereby an actual part of your workplace culture. Make these rights tangible and actionable. Include this in your HR policy and make sure each new hire is informed extensively of these norms and knows the consequences of violating them. A survivor shouldn’t have to be dependent on your goodwill for knowing that they will receive support and care: it should be, and is, their right.

Vandita Morarka has worked towards addressing sexual violence for the past 3 years. She has undertaken trainings for sensitisation for over 20,000 persons directly, provided legal aid to survivors of sexual violence, built leadership to tackle sexual violence at institutions, and has designed policy-legal solutions for preventing sexual violence and ensuring justice in the face of sexual violence. She is the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective, Tweets @vanditamorarka

Featured image: Erwan Hesry

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

Ageing and the Workplace


The evolving workspace makes way and creates space for a generation of older employees, who would not otherwise stick around.

Work provides social contact, personal growth, financial security, stability, a sense of identity and social status.  The workplace — consisting of the work environment and the group dynamics at work — plays an important role in the achievement of the benefits of work.  Not only has there been a change in the demographic distribution, there has also been a change in the work environment since the Industrial Revolution in the 20th century.  Work culture has evolved from a fixed and mechanical one to that of flexible working conditions. The idea of having fixed hours from 9-5 has shifted to accommodate flexible hours and remote working, based on the needs and availability of the employees. This also highlights a growing equality of rights between employees and managers.  [mkdf_blockquote text=” A casual work environment, an emphasis on teamwork and the increasing influence of technology has changed the way a company and its employees function.” title_tag=”h2″ width=””]


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Looking at the demographic trends of various countries, it is evident that although there is a lot of inflow of young employees, the workforce is also ageing.  Apart from developing countries like India, where mortality rates and birth rates are high – contributing to a younger workforce — several developed countries have an ageing workforce. Economic needs evolve, and with current rates of inflation and increasing demand of consumer goods, financial needs have taken precedent over retirement. [mkdf_blockquote text=”Several employees over the age of 55 are less confident about their retirement plans and several find pension and retirement savings insufficient to keep up with the growing economic demands. ” title_tag=”h2″ width=””]

There is also a skill-gap which is often resolved by retaining the older, more experienced employees. Another, rather simple reason why there seems to be an ageing of the workforce is because of the social benefits of work and the feeling of being generally productive. A study has shown that the availability of choice of whether or not to work past the “typical” retirement age- has shown to be a key to satisfaction among working older adults. Imagine the character of Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) as an intern to Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) in the movie, The Intern.

Keeping the movie in mind, it is easy to see the need of the older generations to work and the responsibility of the current generation to reach out to them and accommodate them in the dynamic work environment. However, prejudices are rather common for humans and the ageing population is no less susceptible to being victim to a set of prejudices either.

‘Ageism’ is stereotyping and discriminating on the basis of a person’s age. At work, ageism may take the following roles:

  • Not hiring an older person;
  • Believing that an older employee would not be interested in learning new technology;
  • A preconceived notion that senior employees would be unable to perform or contribute due to physical maladies; or
  • Making fun of the older employees.

Ageism can negatively affect the employees by lowering their self-esteem and self-worth. While some may begin to internalise the stereotypes which could further limit their workplace satisfaction, others may try too hard to fit in, losing their identity and the unique values they bring to an organisation. Several countries have anti-discrimination laws to counter ageism and several companies even encourage the participation of the older employees at work. Ageism is not the only problem that the ageing crowd faces in the workplace. Some of the challenges they face in the changing workplace are:

  • Increasingly dynamic and involved role of technology often makes it difficult for the employees to keep up with work requirements.
  • Some employees may have a low morale when working for a younger management.
  • Unfixed work timings would also mean increasingly long working hours with comparatively low returns, may especially affect them since they’ve worked for fixed hours for several years.

In conclusion — the years of experience and insight that older employees possess helps the current young generation line of managers and founders. Thus several startups today may have a young founder and CEO but also have a board of senior mentors who may be retired but have several years of experience. In fact, the current workplace culture is rather beneficial for accommodating the senior employees and can be used in the following ways:

  • Technology and easy access to resources can provide opportunities for remote work;
  • Equality and declining grapevine requirements allow for modification of responsibilities according to their needs and abilities;
  • A casual work environment encourages the ageing employees to seek guidance in operating new systems and technologies from the younger employees;
  • Anti-discrimination laws in several countries protects against ageism related issues;
  • Increasingly inclusive values of several new companies encourage the ageing population to work beyond the typical retirement age.

Vini Doshi is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.



Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice