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The British military laid the foundation for brothels in the country which are now known as red-light areas

Prostitution in India is considered to be one of the oldest professions. It has been generally defined as promiscuous intercourse paid in either money or kind. The history of prostitution isn't new nor unique to India. It has been practised in almost all countries and every type of society since the establishment of the organization. Prostitution and the accompanying evil like human trafficking for prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human and endanger the welfare of the individuals, the family and the community.

The roots of human trafficking are deeply embedded in an age-old traditional prostitution system prevalent in several parts of the country, like the devadasi and the tawaifs. A Prostitute aka Tawaif is a woman who has turned to sell her own body as aware of others' pleasure for her daily sustenance whereas prostitution is the practice of sexual service in return for money.


According to Indian history, the earlier versions of prostitutes were known as "Devadasi" and were unlike anything we know of today, Devadasis used to dedicate their whole life to the devotion of Lord Krishna. It was believed that Devadasis consider the Gods as their husbands and therefore cannot marry any mortal men. They were later being called "Nagarvadhu's" meaning the "Brides of the town" and were often called upon by the royals and the rich to dance and sing. Singing and dancing was the turf and art form for these Nagarvadhus. To name a few, Amrapali-the state courtesan and a Buddhist disciple came to be known as "Vaishali ki Nagarvadhu".

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The historians have deciphered from historical texts and evidence that the Devadasi or Nagarvadhu's were treated with respect and honour by everyone and the Royal families. No man including the Kings and Mughals even dared to touch them. In fact, during the Mughal era, the prostitutes were treated akin to entrepreneurs and they enjoyed royal patronage. They came to be known as tawaifs. They excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition. They were considered authoritative and masters of etiquette. They had considerable influence in state affairs, religious and political developments for over centuries.

This was until the Britishers came to India, and Devadasi's presented their art form in front of them. Attracted to them the Britishers began the tradition of one nightstand. The British started calling these dancers for sexual pleasures and this paved the way for Prostitution in the country. Under British rule, Devadasis moved from dancing and singing to prostitution which led to the decline of temple dances.

During the late 16th and 17th centuries, when certain parts of India were colonized by the Portuguese; they captured and brought Japanese women to India as sex slaves. The military laid the foundation for brothels in the country which are now known as red-light areas for its troops across many parts of India. Women and girls from rural areas were employed by these brothels and were paid by the military directly. Trying to fulfill the sexual needs of their military the British Raj enacted the Cantonment Act of 1864 to regulate prostitution in colonial India as a matter of accepting a necessary evil.

Kamathipura lane A lane in Kamathipura, a red light district in Mumbai. Wikimedia Commons


Prostitution has seen a severe decline as a profession and their social status. By the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of biological race emerged which regarded inbreeding to conserve racial purity as superior. The British regime heavily focused on decreasing interracial breeding of the whites with other racial groups including Indians, to preserve their racial purity. Due to such structural changes in society, sex work came to be viewed as oppressive and exploitative for females.

Estimates are that child prostitution is a multi-million dollar industry in India. More than half a billion children are in Brothels and they are either sold by their parents who are struck with or victims of abuse. Close to 7000 girls are brought from Nepal to India as human trafficking. These children are then exported to the Middle Eastern countries as sex slaves. According to the Human Rights Watch Report, there are over 20 million prostitutes in India out of which 35% are below the age of 18 years.

ALSO READ: Value of a woman: Prostitution and its socio-economic value

According to Indian law, prostitution itself is not illegal but activities such as running a brothel, soliciting or luring a person into prostitution, traffic of children and women for prostitution are punishable under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA). However, the lives of prostitutes today are saddening and it is in the hands of society to evolve which could be catalyzed by Governmental Institutions. The male prostitution industry is still unrecognized by law and it calls for due attention.

Keywords: Prostitute, sex worker, tawaif, devadasi, human trafficking, laws


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