Prostitution is technically illegal but widely practiced in India. By one count prostitution is an $8 billion a year industry with more two million prostitutes and 275,000 brothels. In another count in all of India, there are as many as 10 million commercial sex workers. Their core clientele has traditionally been truck drivers, migrant workers and other men separated from their families for long periods of time.

Many teenage girls turn to prostitution to raise money for their families or out of need for money to deal with a debt or a problem related to their husbands. Some village girls are tricked into entering the trade in the cities with promises of good money or another kind of job. One survey found that a third of all prostitute enter the trade because of poverty and more than a forth become prostitutes after marital problems.

For prostitutes Vatsyayana, author the Kama Sutra, advised: “Sleeping with strangers for gain does not come naturally for women. Yet to succeed as a prostitute, you must disguise your love of money as natural desire for the man himself. Prove to him that he, not his money, inspires your divine lust by always seeming selflessly devoted. Don’t be too obviously grasping; use your wits to fleece him intelligently.”

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Purchasing young girls and dedicating them to temples, the Devadasi system, was an established custom in India by 300 C.E. These girls often served as objects of sexual pleasure for temple priests and pilgrims. The current knowledge about female sex workers is mostly gained from studies done in the red-light districts of metropolitan cities. Generally, prostitutes tend to come from the less-educated class of women, including single abandoned girls, and economically distressed women. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

“Most of these women were either forced by gang members and others to take up this profession or were betrayed with false promises of a job. Both the central government and the state governments have enacted statutes to repress and abolish prostitution. The central act, The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act (SITA), 1956, has been amended as The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956. However, these statutes have made little impact on the increasing traffic in persons and sexual exploitation and abuse (Pawar 1991).” */

Prostitution, Dancers and the Arts in India

In the past music, dance and theater were often associated with prostitution and entertainers traditionally belonged to lower castes. Dancers have traditionally been members of certain entertainer castes. They ranked low in the caste system and purity scale and supported themselves by working in traveling troupes or working for specific temples. It was not unusual for female temple dancers and troupe dancers to work as prostitutes. When the girls started leaving the temples to please local landlords a law was passed prohibiting the practice of dedicating girls to temples. To this day no mother in India wants her daughter to be dancer, because of its association with promiscuity.

“Thumri” is primarily a vocal style of romance music written from the perspective of the woman and sung in a literary dialect of Hindi called “Braj Bhasha”. In the old days it was often associated with court courtesans and prostitutes. The British regarded Kathak dance as low entertainment and gave it an unwholesome image by calling it nautch dance, more or less meaning “prostitute’s dance”.

Many temple dances were originally performed by the devadasis— female temple servants, who were given to the temple to be “married” to the main deity of the temple. This practice was closely linked with the devotional bhakti sect of Hinduism. During the British colonial period the decline of the devadasi institution into prostitution led to a censorship of temple dances, which were finally prohibited by law in the 1920s.

Female folk entertainers sometimes sell their bodies to earn money. Qalanders, for example, are skilled jugglers, acrobats, bear handlers, magicians and impersonators that travel from place to place. Sometimes women work as prostitutes or exchange sexual favors for camping privileges or grazing rights. The Kanjar are an ancient widely, dispersed group of artisans and entertainers spread through South and Southeast Asia. They are known as dancers, singers, musicians, carnival ride operators and prostitutes.

Prostitution in Bombay

There are brothels in almost every city and town. Most cities have red-light districts and rural areas have road side brothels. According to investigative reporter Robert I. Friedman (1996), there are more than 100,000 female commercial sex workers in Bombay, which he describes as “Asia’s largest sex bazaar.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “The commercial sex district of Bombay is actually two interconnected neighborhoods in the south central part of the city, approximately three square kilometers sandwiched between immense Muslim and Hindu slums. It is also the home of the largest organized crime family in Asia. This red-light district is well served by two major railway stations just a half kilometer away, and twenty-five bus routes. The district is laid out with twenty-four lanes of wooden frame brothels with gilded balconies interspersed with car repair shops, small restaurants, liquor stories, 200 bars, numerous flophouses, massive tenements, three police stations, and a municipal school from which only 5 percent of the students graduate. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

Faulkland Road lies at the center of Bombay’s red light district. In an area called "the Cages" women are displayed in windows and in 4-by-6-foot “pinjara” (Hindi for “cage”). The youngest and prettiest girls are displayed in places where they are most visible. Customers are welcomed day and night. The rooms in Bombay's brothels are often filled with posters of movies idols and religious icons.

About half the women that work as prostitutes in Bombay are Nepalese. Many have been brought to the city by human traffickers who, in some cases bought the girls and women from their parents or husbands. Because of violence, disease, malnutrition and lack of medical care their life expectancy is less than 40 years. Many patrons at these places and the red light district are men from the Gulf States apparently in search of alcohol and easy sex. The transvestites that work here reportedly cater mostly to Sikhs. Two thousand hijras (eunuchs) work on Eunuch Lane. Dressed in short black leather skirts or saris, they are virtually indistinguishable from the female prostitutes, except many are extremely beautiful.

Shilpa, a 30-year-old social worker with five years experience working in the red-light district, provides a fair description of this aspect of Bombay’s sex workers: Female sex workers are often harassed by the police, although their madams pay the police weekly bribes to look the other way. To protect themselves, each girl services several police for free. Though on average the girls see six customers a day, who pay between $1.10 and $2 per sex act, the madam gets the money up front. By the time the madam deducts for food, electricity, and rent, as well as payment - with interest - on her purchase price, there is almost nothing left. So to pay for movies, clothes, makeup, and extra food to supplement a bland diet of rice and dal, the girls have to borrow from moneylenders at an interest rate of up to 500 percent. They are perpetually in hock (Friedman 1996:16). */

Bombay’s flesh trade is an efficient business, controlled by four separate, harmonious crime groups. One group controls police payoffs, a second controls moneylending, and the third, which maintains the district’s internal law and order. The fourth group, the most powerful, manages the procurement of women in a vast network that stretches from South India to the Himalayas (Friedman 1996:18). */

Prostitution in Calcutta

Calcutta has one of the largest sex businesses in India. More than 20,000 prostitutes work in the city. There are 11 red light districts. The largest, Sonagachhi, employs 9,000 prostitutes and is run by powerful brothel landlords, pimps and madams. Many of the prostitutes work in the districts 362 brothels. The rest walk the streets. About 40,000 customers visit the district every day, which means the average prostitute there services five to six customers a day.

In Calcutta prostitutes have formed a union-like organizations—the Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Committee (DMSC), or Committee for the Coordination of Unstoppable Women—to fight for their rights. One of the group’s primary aims is to get prostitute customers to use condoms and practice safe sex. The group has also helped sex works protect themselves against harassment from police and gangsters and get and education so they can get a different job and escape prostitution. At the same time they want prostitution to be legalized and for prostitutes to have the same legal rights as other workers.

One Prostitute's Story

Manju Biswas, a prostitute from Calcutta, told Newsweek she did not enter her profession by choice. When she was 13 she was sold for $30 by an unscrupulous neighbor to a brothel keeper and then drugged and raped and marketed as a child prostitute, "These men, 10 to 15 a day, would come visit me." She also said she was roughed up and humiliated by neighborhood punks. "If I protested they would not only take away my money but stub out cigarettes on my face and arms."

Biswas joined with other prostitutes fought against the hoodlums, capturing their leader and beating him up. After that the punks treated her with respect. Later the group formed a cooperative for sex workers in Calcutta, whose aim was to look out for or the rights of the women and help them make money from other professions such as handcrafting making. Chapters opened up in other cities, and the including grew to 20,000 members.

Child Prostitution in India

By some estimates child prostitution in India is a multi-billion dollar industry. India may have half a million children in brothels, more than any other country in the world. Many are barely in their teens. A shocking number have HIV or AIDS. No children enter the prostitution trade on their free will. Some are runaways or victims of abuse. Other have been sold by their parents, abducted or enticed by gifts.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 young girls are brought from Nepal to India to become prostitutes every year. Children are also brought in from Bangladesh. Prostitution rings in India provide children for clients abroad, particularly in the Middle East.

Sex tourism is a problem in India. Young boys work the beaches in Goa, Kovalam, Pondicherry and Puri. Underground guidebooks describe India as a place any sexual desire can be satisfied. With a crackdown on sex tourism in Thailand and the Philippines, pedophiles from Europe, Japan and the United States began going to Sri Lanka. With unrest there, many have started coming to India. In 1996, a British expatriate, who ran an "orphanage" in Goa for 17 years, was sentenced to life imprisonment for child abuse after police found 2,500 pornographic pictures—including one of a 3-year-old girl—in his apartment."

Most sex offenders are locals not foreigners. Indian men believe that having sex with a virgin will them invulnerable to disease. Some believe that having sex a Indian boys will make them more potent. Others believe it will reduce their chances for getting sexually transmitted diseases.

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “One in five of Bombay’s sex workers are under age 18 - the government is aware of child prostitution but generally ignores the problem. Child sex workers as young as 9 are sold at auctions where wealthy Arabs from the Persian Gulf compete with wealthy Indian males who believe that having sexual intercourse with a virgin cures syphilis and gonorrhea. A major motivation in the bidding for and slavery of child virgins is the fear of AIDS. In this context, child virgins often bring up to 60,000 rupees, the equivalent of $2,000. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

Child Prostitution and Human Trafficking in India

According to human rights groups, about 90 percent of the Bombay prostitutes are indentured servants, with close to half trafficked from Nepal. Some families sell their daughters into prostitution. Prostitution rings in India also provide children for clients abroad, particularly in the Middle East.

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Nepalese women have been shipped to India as prostitutes and sex slaves, with between 5,000 and 7,000 new girls, usually between 10 and 20, arriving every year. Many of them are brought by traffickers who sell the girls for as little as $1,000 a piece.

Nepalese women are considered attractive because of their relatively fair skin, slender bodies and small Asian features. Many of the Nepalese girls end up in Bombay but they are also found elsewhere. It is difficult to find a brothel in India without some Nepalese women. Many of the girls are illiterates and come from villages in the mountains. They are told they are being sent to India to work in factories or as servants. Instead they are taken by human traffickers and sold to brothel owners, who often break their will, confine them and force them to have sex with strangers. Few families actually sell the girls to traffickers but some are so poor they unwittingly contract purported employers, who turn out to be connected with the child traffickers.

Elizabeth Schroeder wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Human trafficking is an issue that has gained wider attention over recent years, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. Nepali law prohibits human trafficking, with penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment for breaking this law. However, trafficking in women and girls remains a serious problem in several of the country’s poorest areas. Girls are sold into sexual slavery by their parents, or leave for India thinking that they are going to get married or have a decent paying job. NGOs working on this topic in Nepal believe that parents do not understand the true consequences of trafficking until it is too late—and that if they did, there would be less done. Organizations like Maiti Nepal are working to provide alternatives to trafficking, such as viable job options, and to help bring trafficked girls and women home from India, to where the vast majority are sold. There are very little, if any, data on the prevalence of young boys who are sold into sexual slavery in Nepal. [Source:Elizabeth Schroeder, M.S.W., Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

“A common statistic puts the number of girls and women currently trafficked from Nepal into India at 200,000, with approximately 3,000 girls being trafficked out of the country each year. A children’s human rights group states that 20 percent of prostitutes in the country are younger than 16 years old. Many of the girls who are sold into the commercial sex trade in India return to Nepal, which creates a number of problems. Cultural attitudes toward returned victims of trafficking are often negative and the Government response often reflects that bias. In addition, girls who return to Nepal often have sexually transmitted infections (STDs). In fact, of the 218 girls rescued in February 1998, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent were HIV-positive. Testing for STDs, including HIV, is a rare occurrence, particularly for young, unmarried girls. The stigma associated with visiting a healthcare provider of any kind, let alone one relating to reproductive or sexual health, far outweigh a young person’s concern about diseases. As a result, trafficking not only does extensive physical, psychological, and emotional damage to the young women being trafficked—it also puts a great segment of the population at risk for STDs. ^^

“While the vast majority of trafficking is for sexual exploitation, women and girls are also sold for domestic service, manual or semi-skilled bonded labor, or other purposes. In some cases, parents or relatives sell women and young girls, especially if they are destitute and do not see their daughters as marriageable. Unverified estimates say that approximately 50 percent of trafficking victims are lured to India with the promise of good jobs and marriage, 40 percent are sold by a family member, and 10 percent are kidnapped. If prevention programs are established in a particular district, traffickers simply move to other areas and continue their work.” ^^

Nepalese Sex Slaves in India

One victim told the Los Angeles Times, after her family's house was washed away by floods she was asked by a village woman if she wanted to make money working in a garment factory. The girl, who was 14 at the time said yes, wanting to help her family. She realized something was amiss when she was taken by a bus to the Indian border and handed over to some men who took her across the border to a brothel in Pune, India. The victim said there were 13 other Nepalese girls at the brothel, most around 14 or 15.

The girl later found out she had been sold for about $700. She said in Pune she was beaten for several days before she agreed to work. She was confined to a windowless room with little more than bed and a light bulb. She serviced up to 30 men a day. They paid $3.50 to $12 depending on what she did and who much time they spent with her, Nearly all the money paid by the men went to the brothel owner.

Another victim told the Washington Post that at the age of nine she was married to a 16-year-old drunk. At 15, she was raped by her uncle. Out of shame her family sent her to India, where she was forced to work in a Bombay brothel. "I never saw the sun rise or set because the windows were always locked," she said. "Every night they sent me 10 or 15 outsiders. Sometimes they raped or burned me with cigarettes. Afterwards they gave us tips, and we hid them in our clothes to buy food."

When the girls returned they are shunned by their families and their communities. Some had AIDS. Some had such a hard time they returned to prostitution because it was the only way they could make a living.

Efforts to Combat the Sex Slave Trade in India

There are stiff penalties for child trafficking but the laws are rarely enforced, At some border checkpoints between India and Nepal, former sex slaves keep an eye out for potential traffickers taking women out of the country. Between 1997 and 2000, 70 suspected traffickers with 270 girls were caught,

ABC Nepal is a private including that runs a shelter and training center for former prostitutes and sex slaves. The girls are taught marketable skills such as candle-making, knitting, goat raising and mushroom growing. When they have finished their training they are given loans of around $100 to start businesses. The charity also tries to find good husbands for the women. The following song is part of a campaign to keep girls on their toes: "Don’t listen to the sweet talk of scoundrels or be lured by dreams of foreign land. In Bombay you'll be sold into prostitution. You'll be beaten, raped and you'll contact AIDS."

Elizabeth Schroeder wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: The Human Trafficking Control Act of 1986 prohibits selling persons in the country or abroad, and provides for penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment for traffickers. However, there are many social and legal obstacles to successful prosecution, and convictions are rare. Since border guards commonly accept bribes to allow contraband and trafficked girls in or out of the country, many professionals are pessimistic about significantly reducing the trade without true government and legal support. [Source:Elizabeth Schroeder, M.S.W., Encyclopedia of Sexuality ^^]

“There are more than 40 NGOs in Nepal combating trafficking, several of which have rehabilitation and skills-training programs for trafficking victims. These groups commonly use leaflets, comic books, films, speaker programs, and skits—short plays with a few actors—to convey anti-trafficking messages and education. Some organizations involved in the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors state that they have been threatened and their offices have been vandalized because of their activities.” ^^

Prostitutes, AIDS and Trucker Drivers in India

One of the main factors cited in the spread of HIV-AIDS in India has been heterosexual transmission, primarily by urban prostitutes and migrant workers, such as long-distance truck drivers. By some estimates 25 to 80 percent of the prostitutes in the red light districts in Indian cities have HIV-AIDS. In some cities in Maharashtra, Andreh Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, half the prostitutes in the 1990s were believed to have had HIV-AIDS. The HIV infection rate among the estimated 80,000 prostitutes in Bombay jumped from 1 percent in 1987 to 30 percent in 1991 to 53 percent in 1993. In the early 2000s about 50 percent of Bombay's prostitutes were infected with the HIV virus but many still didn't insist on condom use.

The first confirmed evidence of AIDS infection in India came in April 1986, when six prostitutes from Tamil Nadu tested positive for HIV antibodies. AIDS spread out of the cities along the truck routes much as it did in Africa. Prostitutes gave the disease to truckers who gave it to other prostitutes in other towns and they gave it to other truckers. In the early 2000s, a surprisingly number of truck drivers had never heard of AIDS and preventive measures taken by those that had heard of it had dubious effectiveness. One driver told the New Yorker he kept AIDS at bay by taking a a bath with lime and water after every visit to a prostitute.

India prostitutes often sleep with three or four men a day. Some women say the can not turn down men who refuse to wear a condom but because they need the money to care for their children. Time talked with one prostitute who believed she got HIV when she was 14 and had unprotected sex with 3,000 customers. Many of prostitute customers are men from the countryside, some of whom caught AIDS and returned home and gave it to their wives. Many others were students who passed the disease on to their wives when they got married.

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: There is little public support for or interest in promoting safer sex practices and condom use among the prostitutes, who are generally viewed as outcasts in India’s caste-bound society and deserving of any ills that befall them. Among Bombay’s estimated 100,000 prostitutes, the HIV rates shot up to 52 percent in 1994, from 2 percent in 1988. The sale of young girls into sexual slavery in the Persian Gulf complicates the situation (Burns 1996). [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality */]

Mujra Dancing and Ladies Clubs

Ladies bars are a unique Bombay institution, with women singing and dancing for wealthy men in what has been described as a “Bollywood fantasy in a South Asia palace.” Women dance, often after saying a prayer, and men off throw cash from their seats. It is forbidden for men to solicit the women but it is regarded as acceptable for them to try to get a woman’s phone number and meet her outside the club.

Somini Sengpata wrote in the New York Times: “ A dozen women in shimmering chiffon skirts swayed their hips, lip-synched and gazed a themselves in the mirrored walls...In one corner of the bar, a man kept his attention and his money focused on a languid young woman in yellow. She moved to the music, threw back her hair, admired herself in the mirror and responded to his invitations to move closer, each time fattening the stack of bills in her hand.” In 2005, conservative Bombay officials with connection the Hindu nationalist group Shin Shiva threatened to close the bars down on the grounds that they promoted prostitution, corrupted young people and threatened family life.

Prostitution in South Asia has traditionally been associated with mujra dancers found at carefully hidden bars advertised by word of mouth. Mujra, or courtesan clubs, have traditionally been associated with men’s nights our during the Eid festival that marks the end of Ramadan. The custom is most alive in Lahore, which has a reputation of being more open and liberal than other places in Pakistan.

Mujra is derived from Kathhak classical dancing. Kathhak dancers enjoyed high status in the Mughal era and often entertained members of the court. There were so many of them at that time they formed their owned caste. The remnants of this caste, many of them illegitimate children born to mujra, are linked with an alternative community of artists and poets that hang around the Diamond Market in Lahore.

Mujra dancers do not perform a strip tease act or anything like; they simply dance, often shaking their bottoms and breasts and wearing bells around their ankles. Maureen Paton wrote in the Times of London: women “wearing leather ankle straps hung with bells below their traditional costumes of tunic and leggings, will simply mime to film music...As a signal to show his appreciation, a man will toss a £5 or £10 note in the direction of his chosen girl. And after the performance is over, sexual services are bought and sold in an adjoining room. Nothing needs to be spelled out: it is understood that sex, if the client wishes, is part of the equation.”

Whittaker Khan, a British-Pakistani woman who wrote a play about mujra dancers, told the Times of London, “They never take off their clothes during the performance because the culture is so repressed. But dancing is so associated now in Pakistan with prostitution that it is difficult to practice it purely as an art form; and men from respectable families don’t marry such girls.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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