Mrs. Sonia Gandhi
Indian National Congress
Akbar Road New Delhi, 110011, INDIA
It has come to our attention that the Parliament of India is considering an amendment to Indias 2006 Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment Bill that proposes to criminalise the clients or buyers (usually men) of sexual services. We wish to share with you some conclusions from the experience of a similar statute in Sweden and raise concerns about this strategy from a human rights perspective.
As you may be aware, in 1998 Sweden passed a law penalizing the purchase of sexual services. It was argued at the time that this strategy would focus the force of the law and law enforcement away from sex workers as the weaker and exploited party in sexual transactions and would protect women sex workers from the predatory impulses of their clients. After ten years, a number of independent and credible evaluations of the impact of this law have shown that far from protecting women in prostitution, the law has made them more vulnerable in numerous ways not foreseen by the framers of the statute.
Studies indicate that the statute has had the effect of reducing street-based prostitution. Fearing prosecution, men have made it clear that they prefer more clandestine venues for sexual transactions, and a great deal of Swedens sex industry has apparently moved indoors, a development greatly facilitated by the use of the internet. Women sex workers still working on the street because they are unable to move their work indoors have reported to researchers that the law has made them more, not less, vulnerable to predatory and violent clients. They note that the men who seek sex on the street are those who are most desperate and violent.
Moreover, since there are fewer clients on the street, those who are still there can be more demanding, including insisting on sex without condoms and other unsafe acts. Some experts have noted that because of the evidentiary rules attached to it, the law has provided an incentive for men to refuse to use condoms because condoms can easily be brought into evidence against them in court proceedings.
Swedish women who remain in street-based work also report that they are unable to maintain their informal networks to warn each other about dangerous clients or support one another in other ways. Transactions are more dangerous and stressful as male clients want to hurry the negotiation, and it is harder for the sex worker to assess whether the client is potentially violent or abusive.
While the political appeal of criminalizing the clients of sex workers is clear, there is no evidence from any country that this is an effective strategy for the protection of women sex workers from violence and abuse. Indeed, there is growing evidence from numerous countries that criminalizing either the sex worker or her client is likely to contribute to abuse and marginalization of sex workers. Criminalization forces sex work to be clandestine with all the dangers noted above and gives latitude to the police to be abusive of sex workers, as well as opening the door for criminal elements to become prominent in the sex trade.
We are sure you are aware that human rights and HIV/AIDS advocates around the world have looked to India as a model for courageous and effective efforts of sex workers and sex worker collectives as HIV/AIDS educators and key players in HIV prevention. We have attended numerous international conferences where representatives of sex worker organizations in India were influential leaders in policy discussions on HIV prevention and awareness-raising. Therefore, what India decides is vitally important.
We urge you to use your exceptional personal stature to prevent amendments being brought to the ITPA. If amendments are brought to Parliament for consideration, they must include public hearings that would allow people in sex work to comment on proposed amendments from their unique perspective. I am sure that such hearings would be a credit to Indian democratic processes and would result in the most appropriate legislative outcome.
Brad Adams, Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Joanne Csete, Former Executive Director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Adrienne Germain, President, International Womens Health Coalition
Geeta Rao Gupta, PhD, President, International Center for Research on Women
Ruth Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service
Aryeh Neier, President, Open Society Institute
Meena Saraswathi Seshu, SANGRAM, India
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Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, President Indian National Congress 10 Janpath/24
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