Red Light Area or Living Hell?

By R Guhambika
Published on February 25, 2014 in The New Indian Express

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A designated red light area – like a Kamathipura in Mumbai or a Sonagachi in Kolkata – in Chennai? A recent missive to the State government by a sex workers’ collective, pleading for an exclusive colony of their own in the city similar to the two notorious hubs of flesh trade on grounds of police harassment and violence raises several disturbing questions.

Cultural mandarins, who rush to proclaim that Chennai, with its conservative moorings, could never have such an organised brothel business on the lines of the other two metros, should only have to look into the past at an institutionalised version that flourished in South India till the last century – the Devadasi system. “A majority of porn CDs are produced in Chennai,” pointed out Anu Canjanathoppil of International Justice Mission, a leading NGO working in the areas of human trafficking and bonded labour. “Chennai may be an orthodox place, but it is not free from the social evil,” she said.

While a social evil, the ‘world’s oldest profession’ also exists in a largely legal grey area in India. “Prostitution for daily bread is not an offence,” as assistant commissioner of police M Kingslin, formerly of the city Anti-Vice squad (AVS), pointed out. “But soliciting in public, owning a brothel and pimping fall under organised crime.”

Acting on public complaints, local police chase away women sex workers and transgenders. Sometimes, they are booked for causing a public nuisance, she claimed. The AVS, on the other hand, deals with online prostitution rackets and organised brothels. “The operators are trapped by our sleuths posing as customers and arrested, whereas the prostitutes are sent to government shelters for rehabilitation,” the officer said.

While the Immoral Traffic Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2006 clearly stipulates that sex workers caught by law enforcement agencies be treated as victims of trafficking, and the pimps, brothel owners and customers as the accused, complaints of police harassment and false arrests continue unabated. It is no wonder then that Indira Female Peer Educator Cooperative, which has at least 3,000 sex workers in and around Chennai as members, came up with the bizarre demand for a designated red-light area.

“Whatever their problems, a designated red-light area is not the answer,” warns Michelle Mendonca, director of Legal, International Justice Mission, Mumbai. Mendonca gave up a flourishing career in the corporate sector eight years ago to become an anti-trafficking activist. “Trafficking by force, fraud and coercion becomes much easier when there are designated red-light areas,” she pointed out. “All the victims we’ve rescued, that have been brutalised and forced, have been from designated red-light areas.”

Then there is also the fact that in an area where everyone engages in sex work, all power is concentrated in the hands of brothel managers and brothel keepers. Victims of trafficking are trapped, with no escape from those who exploit them for profit. “Last month, we rescued a 17-year-old from a designated red-light area,” Mendonca said. “She had been told that she would be given domestic work but she found herself in a brothel. The only persons who might sympathise with her would be other victims, who are powerless themselves.”

What is more, such areas open up avenues for trafficking of minors. Thousands of minors have been reported as missing from states like Jharkhand every year, Canjanathoppil said. Since the areas tend to increase the demand for commercial sex, young girls are kidnapped and abducted in order to fulfill the demand. “There is a high concentration of trafficked victims in Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune and Delhi – all cities that have designated areas,” Mendonca added.

Such areas also breed other crimes – sale of drugs, pornography, alcohol, stealing from customers – that  go unreported.

On the idea of self-policing by the sex workers, she remains skeptical. Her point is that trafficking minors is a lucrative business. And any business that does not cater to the demands of its customers will soon have to close. “Survivors of trafficking have told us that their brothel managers would never ever stand up for them if the customer refused to wear a condom because he (customer) would go somewhere else. This happens in the designated areas of Mumbai.”

Demand driven

According to an NGO report, only six per cent of victims enter the flesh trade willingly. Activists point out that trafficking is not a supply-driven business. It is demand-driven because Indian men want commercial sex and not because Indian women want to become prostitutes. If there is an increased demand, women and children will be kidnapped and abducted, they warn. Hence, all State governments must make decisions that will uphold Article 23 of the Constitution, which prohibits trafficking. “So, on the demand for a designated red-light area by the sex workers’ collective, I would encourage the Chief Minister to make a decision based on studies and research on the trends in trafficking and the impact that designated red light areas have on trafficking,” says Mendonca.