Sex Workers, Prostitution and Grey Areas in India

3 Mar 2022  Read 22318 Views

Sex workers face continuous brutality, violence from clients and banishment from every community activity and even their own family. The recent release of the movie Gangubai Kathiawadi, which revolves around the life of a sex worker turned campaigner, has once again brought the topic into the spotlight. 

Let us understand the grey areas where sex workers live, and prostitution takes place. 


During 300 CE, it was an established custom of purchasing young girls and dedicating them to temples. They were offered as objects of sexual pleasure for the temple and priests. It was commonly practised and termed as the ‘Devadasi System’. The custom later developed, and now, the girls are known as the ‘Brides of the Town’ or ‘Nagarvadhu’. They did not marry and considered God as their husband. 

These women were considered pure, and no one touched them. But after the Britishers came, the life of these women changed. The Devadasi’s were forced to perform dance and music for the British officials. Later, they were even to be called for the sexual pleasures of the officers. The status of the Devadasi changed completely into the role of prostitutes. Soon, women started selling their bodies in exchange for money, and this led to the growth of prostitution activities in India. 

There are as many as 20 million commercial sex workers in India.

Is Prostitution legal in India?

Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Austria, and the Netherlands have regularized the practice of prostitution by formulating specific rules. On the other hand, countries like Kenya, Morocco, and Afghanistan have declared it illegal. The position in India is somewhat in between these two extreme ends, and it has made prostitution legal, subject to certain limitations and restrictions.

To point out that the words prostitution as such has not been made punishable, but there are certain activities related to it, like, running brothels, soliciting, trafficking, and pimping, are considered a punishable offence under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. For instance, if an individual engages in the activity of trafficking, the same shall be a punishable act, but if the same individual receives consideration in exchange for sex, it might not be punishable. We can find that the centre of the topic resides in a grey area.

What are the laws regarding Prostitution?

  • As per Section 2(f) of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, prostitution means ‘the sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purpose’. 

  • Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits traffic in human beings and beggars and other similar forms of forced labour.

  • Sections 372 and 373 specifically deal with child prostitution. According to it, whoever sells, lets to hire, or disposes of any person who is a minor to be used for any illicit or immoral purpose or for prostitution shall be liable for punishment. Such punishment may extend to 10 years. Section 373 punishes the person who buys minors for the purposes of prostitution or illicit intercourse for ten years and is liable for a fine. 

  • Sections 366A, 366B, and 370A of the IPC punish the procreation of minor girls, the importation of girls from foreign for sex and the exploitation of a trafficked person, respectively. The Code has only limited provisions dealing with prostitution.

Recognized Rights of the Prostitutes

The Constitution treats prostitutes at par with the citizens of the country and, hence, are entitled to all the rights as citizens of India. 

The situation of prostitutes came to light for the first time in the case of Buddhadeb Karm Askar vs the State of West Bengal, wherein the accused murdered a sex worker. The apex court recognized the plight of prostitutes and held that prostitutes are human beings, and one has the right to assault or murder them. The court made a remarkable point: ‘Women indulge in prostitution not only for pleasure but out of poverty’. Thus, the Court made directions to the Government to make schemes to give vocational training to sex workers across the country. 

The Bombay High Court in Kajal Mukesh Singh & Ors v. State of Maharashtra dealt with three women in their late twenties who were picked by the police and booked under the Act. The court has held that ‘an adult woman shall have all fundamental rights and to choose their occupation’.

Punishment and Penalty

The activities considered illegal under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956 have been charged with heavy punishments. As pointed out above, the activity of prostitution or sex appeal is not punished, but the activities surrounding it have been made punishable under the Act. The minimum sentence for brothel-keeping is one year, along with a fine. A minimum term of seven years can be imposed for the offence of procuring a girl child for prostitution, which may even extend to life imprisonment. The punishment of an offender for the exploitation of a trafficked minor is somewhere between five to seven years.

Positive Initiatives

The Ministry of Women and Child Development has launched its ‘Ujjawalla’ scheme, whereby the sex workers are identified and are prevented, rescued, rehabilitated, reintegrated, and repatriated from trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. They also came up with a financial assistance programme to help themselves with the basic amenities of life. 

The sex workers collectively working for the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) aim to provide a voice to the issues faced by sex workers at all major forums. They also work to address myths, misconceptions and stigmas that degrade the position of sex workers and create situations for abuse against them.

Recently, the apex court directed State Governments and Union Territories to implement the issuance of ration cards and Voter Identity cards. Based on this, the UIDAI has accepted that no formal proof of residence is required to issue Aadhar cards to sex workers. 


Only a handful of sex workers have a birth certificate or any kind of identity certificate. They face discrimination at every level of society, be it in medical, educational, or cultural places. They lack an identity of their own. All these laws and systems in practice have put the lives of sex workers in a grey light. The government has created ‘red-light areas’ for both personal and professional sustenance. This makes it hard for them to find clients and puts them in a state of fear of being caught by police and harassed, as well as an increased chance of being misbehaved. They are hardly treated as an equal part of society. Individuals from the privileged class need to come forward and help sex workers get the status they deserve.

About the Author: Ankita Saria | 4 Post(s)

Final year Ba.llb. student from the University of Calcutta. Passionate about learning different skills. Loves law and believes in hard work.

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