By: Neeta Lal

India’s parliamentarians again are debating whether prostitution should be legalized or decriminalized.  It is an argument that a 36-year-old sex worker in a brothel in New Delhi’s infamous GB Road is watching closely. She gives her name only as “Lata.”

The story of how Lata got to GB Road, Asia’s largest and the world’s second largest red-light district,  housing an estimated 12,000 of India’s 3 million-odd sex workers, is a sad one lived by far too many of India’s girls and women and depressingly will inevitably be lived by more as more women enter the work force and a steadily growing economy gives men the money to visit sex workers.

Lata was born in the Etawah village of Uttar Pradesh, she says, ironically to school teacher parents. 

She had no idea her life would take her, at the age of 16, to 20 years of prostitution. She had three siblings, she said, all of whom studied at a local government school where her father once taught.

But when she was in her 10th year of schooling, the wife of a rich farmer neighbour died in childbirth. He was Lata’s father’s friend. He offered the equivalent of U$4,000 for the 16 year old girl.  Her father, an alcoholic, quickly accepted the offer.

“Mom wasn’t too happy about the arrangement, but she capitulated as dad had threatened her with dire consequences,” Lata said. “I was mortified at the thought of marrying an old man but succumbed under familial pressure and the thought of how so much money would dramatically alter the lives of my brother and two little sisters. However, two days after the wedding, panic set in. I realized I’d rather die than live for the rest of my life with a husband old enough to be my father.”

Telling her family of her decision to run away would spell trouble, so she thought of suicide, she said. 

“Then another thought crossed my mind — why not run away to a different city? So in the dead of night, five days after my marriage, I ran away from my husband’s home after packing in my clothes and some jewellery my mother had given me. I boarded the local bus to Delhi, hoping for a fresh, clean start.”

On the bus, she met what she described as an attractive young man who suggested she visit a women’s organization in Delhi which could offer me vocational training and even a job. 

“’A place to stay and food could also be a part of the deal,’” he said. “I was hooked. Upon reaching Delhi, the guy took me to this large old Haveli [a dilapidated mansion] on GB Road to meet the ‘manager.’ I had no clue what I was heading for. A few girls were learning Bollywood moves from a dance master on the premises wearing loud makeup and gaudy clothes.”

The manager, a woman in her 50s – the madam – told Lata that if she could learn to dance, she would line up stage shows in return for a commission. 

“I didn’t suspect anything as the lady was very nice. She gave me a room (a dingy one which I had to share with another girl) and food in exchange for doing housekeeping on the premises,” she says “Once I got acclimatized to my new environs, the madam gradually started sending me `clients’. At first I was repulsed by the thought of selling my body. But what other choice did I have? Going back home wasn’t an option. Nor was I educated enough to get a job.”

Besides, she said, “the other girls told me the money was okay. Plus there were tips too.    

People from all strata of society – politicians, students, professionals, rickshaw pullers – visit her and her confreres. “Some of them are decent while the others create problems by insisting on not using condoms. As madams hate to turn a client away, they occasionally force us to have unprotected sex. As rates for such encounters are double, few girls object.” 

In India, sex workers hardly undergo the tests HIV/AIDS, which jeopardizes their lives.  Worse, a major chunk of earnings (usually US$20 per client) is taken away by pimps who bring in costumers. These dalals further have to send hafta (bribe) to the police to run their businesses.

“The cops are another nuisance. They want sex – for free! If we refuse, we’re harassed, or our regular clients prevented from visiting us or worse, beaten up.” 

Every year in India millions of young girls go missing, fathers sell their vulnerable girls, husbands unconscionably sell their wives, traffickers inject steroids to young girls to make them look like adults… 

“There are plenty of such horror cases in our brothel too,” Lati says. “Most of us come from the poorest states and from the lowest strata of society.  Exploitation of sex-workers is a common practice as the sex trade is proliferating due to social media.”

As India has become famous for medical tourism, with westerners flocking to the country for inexpensive medical care, it is becoming famous for sex tourism, with many Indian cities turning into sex tourism hubs.

“The government isn’t doing much to stop prostitution because poor lives have little value,” Lata says. 

Another dark aspect of sex-trade industry is pornography. Though pornography in India is a punishable offence, thousands of such websites run unregulated. The business has gone virtual and pimps are increasingly shifting their work online for fear of being caught. Social networking sites are turning into virtual brothels. 

“Obviously, the government isn’t serious about tackling this issue,” she says. “More than the debate over legalization of prostitution, we need to remove pornographic websites as they set in chain an undesirable chain of events. Pornography fuels the demand for prostitution leading to an increase in trafficking of women and children. Some people feel that legalizing prostitution will check the exploitation of sex-workers from police and pimps while keeping AIDS in check. I don’t think so. Sex is a slavery in any form. The trauma and exploitation of prostitutes at brothels is unimaginable and legalizing the trade will only lead to increased trafficking of young girls.”

People say prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, she concludes. “Is it a profession? I’d say it’s the oldest crime committed against humanity. Rather than wasting time over debates and TV discussions, why doesn’t the government focus on rehabilitating us and providing us some decent work. We should be integrated with the rest of society. All human beings deserve to live a life of dignity including us.”