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"UPA divided over amendments to Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act" 2007

Minister of women and child development Renuka Chowdhury’s move to make radical amendments to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act has seen the entire UPA government divided over this contentious issue. Several male ministers, led by law minister, Kapil Sibal, Anbumani Ramadoss, and , Mani Shankar Aiyar, are strongly opposed to the amendment, which will punish men for visiting prostitutes.

The amendment will make the client of a sex worker a criminal liable to a jail term of up to seven years. Under the present law, while the women in the trade are punished for "seduction", her clients and all others involved go virtually scot-free. The amendment has now been referred for re-examination to the group of ministers comprising the home minister, Shivraj Patil, Sibal, Ramadoss and Aiyar amongst others. Chowdhury is stepping up pressure to table the amendment in the current session of Parliament.

Sibal and his other male colleagues believe this amendment could force the entire trade to go underground and create more problems than it will solve. Concurrent to this fear of forcing this trade to go underground is their belief that prostitution should be legalised. Several ministers state that if this is done, as is the case with several countries in the West, prostitutes will be allowed to work in certain zones, issued licences, their names will be in government records, they will have to undergo regular health check-ups and, if need be, even pay taxes. They will definitely stop being exploited, both by pimps and by the police, these ministers claim.

The issue has further divided India’s three million prostitutes working out of 400 red light areas. Women in sex work, including those from Sonagachi in Kolkata and in Sangli in Maharashtra, demand that prostitution be treated at par with any other job.

"It is a woman’s choice if she decides to enter this profession," said Meenu Seshu of Sangram, a Maharashtra-based organisation working with sex workers. "This acceptance has also played a key role in helping women negotiate the use of condoms, which is important as a means of controlling HIV/AIDS."

Chowdhury has been a vociferous proponent of this amendment, which she says is a move "to prevent the harassment of innocent girls who are forced into the flesh trade by traffickers. If we don’t punish the men, then whom do we punish?" "It is high time sex workers are portrayed as victims rather than offenders. If the amendment comes through, the women will not be forced to vacate the property in which they are living, as has been done in the past," she insists.

The CPM leader, Brinda Karat, emphatically states, "Impermissible male sexual behaviour is not acceptable. A long-standing demand of the women’s movement has been that the bias against women in law be removed." She also feels strongly about the number of young women who are being forced into this trade. "The issues of real livelihoods and rehabilitation for these poverty-ridden women need to be looked at," said Ms Karat.

  1. 2007