Historically, sex work was neither condemned nor criminalized in India. Sex workers were treated with respect and reverence in ancient times, tolerated in the medieval period and medically regulated during colonial rule. Presently, female, male and transgender sex workers are confronted with the punitive regime of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956. The ITPA was enacted following India’s ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949). Previously known as the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act (SITA), the Act does not criminalise prostitution per se, but proscribes nearly every activity related to commercial sex.
Offences under ITPA include brothel keeping, living on earnings of sex work, procuring, inducing or detaining for prostitution, with or without consent, prostitution in areas notified by Police and near public places and soliciting. Penalties are higher for crimes involving children (<16 yrs) or minors (< 18 yrs). All offences are cognizable, that is, Police do not require a warrant to arrest or investigate. ITPA also accords wide powers to search, remove detain and evict sex workers, under the purview of ‘rescue and rehabilitation’. Read More
Studies have shown that instead of protecting women, ITPA has been used primarily against female sex workers on charges of soliciting. The embargo on brothel keeping has pushed sex workers onto the streets or other dangerous sites. Frequent raids disrupt HIV intervention services by creating fear amongst sex workers, resulting in their dislocation or involuntary detention in ‘protective’ homes. Sex workers are prevented from supporting their families, including children above the age of 18, who risk being arrested for living on sex work money. There is an urgent need for sex work law reform, a demand that the Unit is raising together with sex workers’ organizations. Read more and view Press Release Here
In 2006, the Government of India proposed to amend the ITPA by introducing the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2006 in the Lok Sabha. Though purporting to decriminalize soliciting, it sought to criminalize clients of sex workers by making any person who visited or was found in a brothel liable to punishment. Modeled on the Swedish Law on Prohibition of Purchase of Sexual Services, 1999, the ITPA Amendment Bill was vigorously opposed by sex workers. Owing to its contentious provisions, the Bill was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development and later, Group of Ministers. The Lawyers Collective intervened in the legislative process, submitting critiques and mobilizing community and civil society pressure against further criminalization of sex work. The stringent criticism on legal, political and public health grounds resulted in divergence of opinion within the government. Consequently, the ITPA Amendment Bill lapsed in February, 2009. Read more
Internationally, there are different legislative approaches to sex work. The Lawyers Collective sought to examine these models in terms of their impact on sex workers’ lives as well as HIV transmission in paid sex. Read more