Red light ahead

Legalizing Prostitution Imposes Cataclysmic Social Costs

NCW chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam has declared NCW’s intent to endorse legalisation of prostitution at the forthcoming consultation of the Supreme Court appointed committee reviewing government schemes, in order to achieve more effective rehabilitation and basic citizen rights for `sex workers’.

This committee’s task had earlier been clarified as one geared to ensure livelihoods through technical skills acquisition enabling life with dignity and basic citizen rights, not to be construed as SC approval of `sex work’. The NCW chairperson has cited the `Sonagachi model’ of unionising `sex workers’, which i have extensively documented for its flawed research, false health claims and dubious impact.prostitute

National interest demands a fuller debate on the legalisation of prostitution. Germany’s number of women in prostitution has doubled since legalisation, yet 90% plus are still illegal, mostly trafficked from less prosperous countries.Now known as the `bordello of Europe’ with a sex tourism business built on the backs of mostly migrant women supposedly exercising choice, Germany has luxurious multi-storeyed mega brothels in several cities, making pimps and procurers respectable businessmen. Political forces want to backtrack but are helpless before enormous vested interests.

Netherlands, which preceded Germany with the `individual choice, human rights’ paradigm, has its deputy prime minister calling it `a national mistake’. The Dutch justice minister and police concede lack of improvement in the condition of prostituted women, still poorer health, and increased numbers in `not voluntary’ drug addiction.Significant links with organised crime have led to many brothel closures. The European Parliament passed this year by overwhelming majority a detailed resolution to tackle sexual exploitation and prostitution, and their impact on gender equality. It noted two models in Europe ­ the GermanNetherlands `individual choice, legalised sex work’ model vs the `Nordic mod el’ positioning prostitution within the spectrum of violence against women as sexual exploitation and marker of gender inequality. Sweden decriminalises the exploited seller, of fers support and ex it programmes but criminalises the purchasers and procurers.

Ironically, since 1999 many activists urged India to follow a similar `demand reduction’ strategy, explicitly penalising the buyer. Demand reduction is also en joined by the 2000 Palermo Protocol supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime to which India is a signatory. Today, the Swedish model stands vindicated ­ adopted by Norway, Iceland, Finland, Ireland, Russia, Philippines and Korea.

But in India this attempt was obstructed, as powerful foreign donors backed proprostitution and condom centric HIVAIDS programmes that helped (a) sexualise the media and (b) seeded high risk sexual networks to form privileged communities in the name of HIVAIDS prevention.

Better laws, implementation, policing, support systems for women’s safety and sexual abuse prevention are required ­ as is, above all, a change in the male mindset. If respect for bodily integrity is interpreted to include the right to barter it in commercial transactions, this tears all intimacy out of socially legitimate relationships.The current battle to secure bodily integrity, including the battle against marital rape, can scarcely succeed if we sanction the wilful sale of the body.Legalisation of prostitution benefits an already discredited business model and imposes cataclysmic social costs.