A top HIV/AIDS Indian official and a Cabinet minister on Monday strongly criticized the Central government's plan to punish clients visiting sex workers in a move to curb prostitution. The Bill to amend the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA) was moved in Parliament in 2006 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development headed by Renuka Chowdhury.
Director general of National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) K Sujatha Rao and Labor and Employment minister Oscar Fernandes said the amendments proposing to put clients of sex workers behind bars and imposing a fine of up to Rs 50,000 for those visiting brothels, would in no way curb the sex trade but only push it underground. That, in turn would make it more difficult to track down sex workers, who are most vulnerable to contracting the HIV/AIDS virus.
A recent report by the world's first independent commission on AIDS in Asia-Pacific, headed by the Indian PM's chief economic advisory C Rangarajan, shows that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia is mainly fuelled by men who go for paid sex. According to the report 75 million men in Asia visit sex workers, 10 million women sell sex to these men.
"On the day Rangarajan submitted the report, I had called for legalizing sex trade," Union minister Fernandes said.
According to Union minister Fernandes sex trade could never be curbed and would remain till humanity existed. He said he proposed to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh soon and discuss a balanced approach to the issue. Fernandes added: "Even the Bible makes a reference to sex trade. Reforming society will be the best approach rather than trying to curb the sex trade."
In India, 86.7% of HIV/AIDS prevalence is on account of heterosexual activities. Reports reveal that in places like Pune, nearly 40% of sex workers are infected with HIV. India has nearly 2.5 million prostitutes operating from nearly 300,000 brothels spread out in 1,100 red light areas across the country.
Director general of NACO Sujata Rao, cited the case of Sweden, which imposed a ban on buying sexual services but has failed to curb the trade. "There is absolutely no evidence that sex work came down or clients stopped visiting sex workers. In fact, many such women crossed over to Norway and continued the trade. There will always be sex trade. It's impossible to stop it," Rao said.
"Because there will always be demand for paid sex, the supply will continue even if you bring a law against it. In fact, it will make sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. It will make it all the more difficult for us to monitor their health while those infected would spread the disease to their multiple partners without knowing their status," she added.
The amendments to the ITPA are very nearly cleared by a group of ministers (GoM) headed by home minister Shivraj Patil. Sources said the GoM didn't universally accept the amendments. Health minister A Ramadoss too was reportedly against bringing about the amendments fearing that punishing clients would force prostitutes to leave brothels and set up new hideouts thereby increasing their health hazards.