The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956 does not prohibit sex work per se but sex workers can be booked by invoking its provisions which ban brothel keeping, living on earnings of sex work and soliciting in public places.
Sex workers and activists have been demanding amendments to the Act, which they allege has been disproportionately used against sex workers.
“There is always fear of a police raid, even in the privacy of my home. And if they catch us the client is punished too,” says Soni, a sex worker in Delhi’s Mangolpuri who is not attached to a brothel but serves clients at home.
Section 4 of the Act says an individual over 18 years of age, dependent on the income of a sex worker shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to Rs.1000. “This means children of all sex workers can be punished, because by the time they are 18 they are barely out of school and unlikely to be financially independent. This also comes in the way of children aspiring for higher education, since after turning 18 they can no longer depend on the earnings of their mothers,” says Amit Kumar, national coordinator of the All India Network of Sex Workers.
As the country readies to omit outdated laws, there is a clamour from activists and legal experts for making changes in the Act.
Those arguing in favour of an amendment point out the ‘Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act’ was introduced in 1956 to prevent under age girls from being forced into prostitution but this has not stopped. The laws were amended twice, in 1972 and again in 1986, without promising results.
“Efforts were made by the Government to amend the ITPA in 2005. The issue was referred to a Parliamentary Committee and several changes were recommended. But the Bill could not go through as there was disagreement between the Health Ministry on the one hand and the Home and Women and Child Development Ministry on the other. The Cabinet could not reach an agreement and the Bill fell through,” says Ravi Kant, Supreme Court advocate and president of NGO Shakti Vahini.
An Inter Ministerial Group was formed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to recommend changes in the ITPA but nothing has happened so far, he says. In the absence of amendments, sex workers allege they are at the mercy of the local police who can barge in any time and book them. They cited the midnight raid carried out at the Khirki Extension when the former Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti led a police team to the residence of African women alleging they were involved in sex trade and drug peddling.
(This is the second part in a series of reports on sex work in India)
First part: >It’s time to decriminalise sex trade: activists