Prostitution in India: Issues and Trends


By K. Jaishankar* and Debarati Haldar**



Prostitution, the system that commodifies and dehumanizes the bodies and persons of women and children of both sexes for the use and profit of men, is today the object of an intense and international mainstreaming campaign that is working for the social and political acceptance of the hugely profitable industries of sex. Prostitution in India is a serious social problem and its solution has been rendered difficult by the problem of poverty.  Prostitution is widely rampant in India and its main markets are in the big cities. The statistics available on the number of prostitutes operating in the country is not exact because there is so much of clandestine prostitution, in spite of such undetected prostitution the situation is horrifying. A very accurate, comprehensive picture of prostitution in India is not available since sexual exploitation and sale of women and children are mostly unreported crimes. This paper analytically reviews the history of prostitution, factors of prostitution, magnitude of the problem and the current issues and trends of prostitution in India.



Key words: Prostitution; Child and Women Trafficking: Social factors; Trends; Issues



Prostitution is one of the oldest professions of the world practiced since the birth of the organized society. Prostitution is practiced in almost all the countries and every type of society. In India, the Vedas, the earliest of the known Indian literature, abound in references to prostitution as an organized and established institution. In Indian mythology there are many references of high-class prostitution in the form of celestial demigods acting as prostitutes. They are referred to as Menaka, Rambha, Urvashi, and Thilothamma. They are described as perfect embodiments and unsurpassed beauty and feminine charms. They are highly accomplished in music and dance. They entertained divinities and their guests in the court of Lord Indira, the Lord of Hindu Gods. They were also sent to test the real depth of ‘tapasya’ (penance) and devotion of great saints (Biswanath, 1984).

An apsara named Menaka caused the downfall of the great sage Vishwamithra, and became the mother of Shakuntala, the immortal heroine of the greatest drama of the world, Abhigyan Shakuntalam written by the great poet Kalidas of India. Aryan rulers of India followed the system of celestial court and developed the system of guest prostitution. They presented well-accomplished maidens in token of friendship of kings. They were also offered as ransom to the victor to part with his most beloved prostitute. Empires fell and came up for her sake. Another class of girls from infancy were carefully selected and fed on poisonous herbs and venomous foods. They were called Vishkanyas (Poisonous virgins). The kings to destroy their enemies utilized these prostitutes (Biswanath, 1984).

Prostitutes were common during the reign of the Pandavas and Kauravas (Historical Indian rulers). They were an important part of the court and both dynasties possessed harems of aristocracy in Brahmanic India. Having concubines is common among the aristocracy. Kautilya’s famous ‘Arthasasthra’ contains rules for prostitutes and their activities and gives an account of how prostitutes should behave and how their lives are ordered.  A code of conduct was prescribed, for people seeking their favor and for them.  They had certain definite prerogatives, rights and duties.  Vatsyayan, the noted Indian sage of the Third century B.C. devoted a number of pages on prostitutes and their amorous ways of life in his monumental treatise Kamasutra.  Rules of conduct for popular and successful practice of their trade have been prescribed. His classification of the prostitutes indicates that the common, private, and the clandestine prostitutes of today had their prototypes in those olden days (Biswanath, 1984).

            The sanctified prostitution in the third century A.D. in the Sanskrit works of Mahakavi Kalidas. Religious prostitutes were attached to the famous temples of Mahakala of Ujjain and the system of holy prostitutes became common. This class consisted of girls who had been offered by the parents to the service of the God and their religion. In the south India, they are known as Devadasi and in North India as Mukhies. These dancing girls were considered essential at the time of offering of prayers and were given a place of honor. Gradually due to the laxity of morals among the priests, they misused the systems for immoral purposes. Under the garb of religious dedication of girls to temples, clandestine prostitution developed.

The medieval period gave great importance to women and wine. The Muslim rulers with the exception of Aurangazeb recognized prostitution and the profession flourished under royal patronage. After the downfall of the Mughal Empire, hoards of concubines, dancing and singing girls women came out of the royal palaces. They were not trained for any profession and society had no jobs to offer them. When faced with economic problem they had no choice but to take recourse to the laziest of all the trades, the trade of sex. The place of women in India did not improve during the British regime. Conditions continued to deteriorate and in the absence of state control and regulation, prostitution thrived on a large commercial scale. Social disabilities and economic hardships of women made them an easy victim to the gangsters of this profession (Biswanath, 1984).

This shows that prostitution existed in India in some form or the other from time period to period but the evil has continued to persist. Today prostitution exists in almost every big city of the country. Women from third world countries are given allurement to work in India, as waitresses, models, artists and cabaret performers which subsequently lead to their exploitation by the flesh traders. Besides there are “high class call girls” who are engaged on lucrative jobs and yet return to these vice activities during nights in every discrete manner.  If the traditional brothels or red light areas are on the wane, the evil of prostitution has manifested itself in posh localities of Metropolitan cities in the guise of singing and dancing schools. Prostitution in India can therefore be called as an “Ancient Vice in Modern Garb”. 

The current laws in India that legislate sex workers are fairly ambiguous. It is a system where prostitution is legally allowed to thrive, but which attempts to hide it from the public. The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as the The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, sex work in India is neither legal nor illegal; it is tolerated since prostitutes can practice their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. In particular, the law forbids a sex worker to carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place. Unlike as is the case with other professions, however, sex workers are not protected under normal workers laws, and are not entitled to minimum wage benefits, compensation for injury or other benefits that are common in other types of work. They do, however, possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire and possess all the rights of other citizens. In practice this is not common. Recently the old law has been amended as The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA (Wikepedia Contributers, 2006). The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which predates the SITA is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as "public indecency" or being a "public nuisance" without explicitly defining what these consist of. Sections 366A and 366B of Indian Penal Code, are intended to punish the export and import of girls for prostitution. Section 366A deals with procuring minor girls from one part of India to another. Section 366B makes it an offence to import into India from any country outside India girls below the age of twenty-one (21) years for the purpose of prostitution. Section 5, of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1986 defines procuring, inducing or taking persons for the purpose of prostitution.  Section 6 of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1986 provides punishment not less than seven years for detaining a person in premises where prostitution is carried out.



A survey of prostituted women in India reveals their reasoning for staying in prostitution (in descending order of significance): poverty/ unemployment; lack of proper reintegration services, lack of options; stigma and adverse social attitudes; family expectations and pressure; resignation and acclimation to the lifestyle. (CATW - Asia Pacific, Trafficking in Women and Prostitution in the Asia Pacific). Most of the research done by Sanlaap (an NGO) indicates that the majority of sex workers in India work as prostitutes due to lacking resources to support themselves or their children. Most do not choose this profession out of preference, but out of necessity, often after the breakup of a marriage or after being disowned and thrown out of their homes by their families. The children of sex workers are much more likely to get involved in this kind of work as well (Wikipedia contributers, 2006).


Poverty's Role in Indian Prostitution

One of India's most striking characteristics is its material poverty. An estimated 40% of India's population lives in poverty. This means that almost 400 million people cannot meet basic survival needs like food, clothing, and shelter. This is an overwhelming, almost unimaginable statistic. Poverty does not create imbalances in gender and sex. It only aggravates already existing imbalances in power and therefore increases the vulnerability of those who are at the receiving end of gender prejudice. In a patriarchal set up, the section in families in societies that is affected is women and girl children. Caste wars, political strife, domestic conflicts through their manifestations and repercussions reflect strong gender prejudice against women. Violence against women, assault and rape on women are not individual sexual or physical crimes. It has become a tool of a political statement for aggression and gender persecution, which amply reflects on the degree of human degradation and commoditization of women in the eyes of the state, community, and society.

Indeed, such poverty belongs to an almost surreal world in which only the "wealthy" are certain to meet basic needs. Desperation seems to characterize the lives of India's poor. This desperate poverty is often cited as the root of India's growing prostitution problem. In some cases, a woman may prostitute herself in order to obtain material possessions she could not otherwise afford. While fundamental needs like food, clothing, and shelter may be provided, some girls pursue dreams of greater prosperity and economic opportunity through prostitution.




Devadasi System in India (Religious Prostitution)

A review of Prostitution in India would be incomplete if it not refers to the special class of women known as devadasis. For centuries the devadasis or dancing girls serving in temples were taught music and dancing with all wealth of detailed technique.  As they were hereditary employees of the temples, the enjoyed economic security.  Further, they had an advantage of receiving training under technically competent traditional teachers.  Unfortunately the system deteriorated and devadasis came to be increasingly identified with prostitution.  The Devadasi system has a significant place in the history of prostitution in India.  The term Devadasi literally means servants (slaves) of God and perhaps originally denoted a class of women who gave themselves to a life of religious service and austerities.  These devadasis who were not supposed enter the bond of matrimony often functioned as temple singers, dancers, concubines and prostitutes. The term Devadasi became a euphemistic way of referring to women prostituting in the name of religion (Lall, 1968). 

            The Devadasi system was set up, according to a Times of India report (10-11-1987) as a result of a conspiracy between the feudal class and the priests. The latter, with their ideological and religious hold over the peasants and craftsmen, devised a means that gave prostitution their religious sanction. Poor, low-caste girls, initially sold at private auctions, were later dedicated to the temples. They were then initiated into prostitution. A Times of India report (10-11-1987) confirms that the practice of dedicating young dalit girls (Mahars, Mangs, Dowris and Chambhar) at childhood to a goddess, and their initiation into prostitution when they attain puberty continues to thrives in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of South India. This is largely due to social backwardness, poverty and illiteracy, according to a study by two doctors of the India health Organization.

The report clearly indicates that the Devadasi system was the result of a conspiracy between the feudal class and the priests (Brahmins), who with their ideological and religious hold over the peasants and craftsmen devised a practice, which acquired religious sanction. They noted in their study on -"Devadasis - the link between religious culture and child prostitution". The study revealed that girls from poor families are married to God Krishna and are sold after puberty at private auctions to a high caste master who initially pays a sum of money to the families ranging from Indian Rupees 500/- to 5,000/-.The study, made during health camps organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Devadasi populated areas, revealed that the dedicated girls formed 15 percent of the total women involved in prostitution in the country, and as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of the prostitutes in the border districts of Karnataka and Maharashtra

The devadasi tradition, still prevalent in many parts of India, continues to legitimize child prostitution. A devadasi is a woman married to a god and thus sadasuhagan or married, and hence at all times blessed. As such, she becomes the wife of the powerful in the community. Devadasi is known by different names in different states. In the Bijapur district of Karnataka, girls are given to the Monkey God (Hanuman, Maruti), and known as Basvi. In Goa, a devadasi is called Bhavin (the one with devotion), In the Shimoga District of Karnataka, the girls are handed over to the goddess Renuka Devi, and in Hospet, to the goddess Hulganga Devi. The tradition lives on in other states in South India. Girls end up as prostitutes in Bombay and Pune. The Banchara and Bedia peoples of Madhya Pradesh also practice "traditional" prostitution. (Lambey, 1997)


Social Factors in Prostitution

The view of women as a commodity is pervasive in popular manifestations of Hindustan culture in India. Women who have had sexual experiences are considered to be ‘used goods' and are unlikely to ever marry. Without a husband, a woman has no source of income; she also cannot wear the marriage bindi. She is an impoverished cultural outcast. The prevailing line of reasoning is that she at least has a useful place as a prostitute. Women who have been widowed or divorced are also confronted with this social stigma. If a woman's husband dies, she has essentially outlived her purpose. Since she is not a virgin, she obviously cannot marry again. In rural areas, "bride burnings," in which a woman burns herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre, still occur. The social stigma, which leads a woman to believe that her life is worthless after her husband’s death, is also attached to a woman whose husband chooses a different woman as his wife.

When strong cultural notions are combined with the potency of religion or poverty, even more people are pressured into prostitution. For example, a girl may become a street child because her mother died and her father's new spouse will not accept her. As a street child, she may be periodically arrested along with her fellow vagabonds for crimes, which they may or may not have committed. While in police custody, instead of simply being beaten as her male cohorts are, she may be sexually abused by the police officers. She may decide to become a prostitute to support herself and to find her place in the broken world in which she is fated to reside. Her children will likely be prostitutes as well.




India is a receiving, sending, and transit country for prostitution. Due to its geographical proximity to Nepal and Bangladesh as well as Pakistan, all of which are economically less developed than India, the constant illegal movement of people is a perpetual phenomenon. Every day, about 200 girls and women in India enter prostitution, 80% of them against their will (CEDPA and PRIDE, 1997). Prostitution is widely rampant in India and its main markets are in the big cities.  The statistics available on the number of prostitutes operating in the country is not exact because there is so much of clandestine prostitution, in spite of such undetected prostitution the situation is horrifying. A very accurate, comprehensive picture of prostitution in India is not available since sexual exploitation and sale of women and children are mostly unreported crimes; since many cruel episodes are caused by middlemen and procurers who act secretly and in a very organized, criminal manner. However, some intensive project studies and research work reveal following facts: According to a recent publication on trafficking, (The Coalition against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific. there are about 2.3 million prostitutes in India. This data may seem to be on the higher side but authentic data of a survey of Bombay (Mumbai) city alone indicates an alarming figure of more than 0.1 million prostitutes in its 12000 brothels. Approximately 20% women in prostitution are under 18. A sample survey of 12 states and 2 union territories reveals that women who are sexually exploited and sold are usually children (under 18 years) at the time of their initial exploitation or abduction.

            A survey by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development reveal that only 4.9 % of the prostitutes in Calcutta are born within the city. More than 70 districts supply prostitutes to Delhi. The survey also revealed that two third of the original families of prostitutes lived below the poverty line and 60 % of the prostitutes covered in the survey belonged to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes or Backward Classes. A study of 12 states and 2 union territories reveals that the majority of rural girls are forced to take up prostitution (Rozario, 1999). One can conceptually see that these prostitutes are mainly from two groups. They have no education and belong to the lower income group or they belong to castes, which are lowly placed - they come from a backward community with little education (The Fact book on Global Sexual Exploitation, 1999).

Prostitution is increasing in India where there have been fears over the spread of AIDS and reports of young girls being abducted and forced into prostitution (Reuters, 1998). It takes up to fifteen years for girls held in prostitution via debt-bondage to purchase their freedom (Freidman, 1996). Children of prostituted women are victims of sexual abuse as well. Children are forced to perform dances and songs for male buyers, and some are forced to sexually service the males (Menon, 1997).There are three routes into prostitution for most women in India. 1) Deception;  2) Devadasi dedication and 3) Bad marriages or families. For some women their marriages were so violent they preferred prostitution. Husbands or families introduced some women to prostitution. Many families knew what the women had to do, but ignored it as long as they got the benefits from it (Karkal, 1997).