India’s Sex Workers, Trafficking and NGOs Willing to Help

Tearfund: ‘They don’t need pity, they need physical and emotional security’

One of the fastest growing economies in the world, India has seen increase in as much as 9% growth in a year [1]. Despite this, the average woman only earns Rs 440,333 (Indian Rupees) per annum, equal to around £5,400. 172 million people are below the poverty line.  With these figures, it is easy to imagine why some women may turn to prostitution as a form of income. 1.1% of the female population [2], equating to upwards of six million women, are estimated to be sex workers. Explaining some of the issues surrounding sex workers, this article seeks to showcase organisations combating sex work discrimination and human trafficking.

Culture, Law and Vulnerability

India has a culture of violence against women. Urging the government to make rape within marriage a criminal offence, committees appeal to the government to introduce a special law on honour crimes, and not dilute the laws relating to cruelty by husbands. In December, the government stated in Parliament that it intended to amend the Penal Code to criminalise marital rape. The law states that unless the wife is not under fifteen years of age, it is not rape. With this in mind, it highlights that sex workers are at even more at risk.


Sex workers are an incredibly vulnerable demographic of people, at risk of many human rights cases of abuse.  These include rape, violence, trafficking and arbitrary arrest, among others.  Marginalisation and stigmatisation remains a problem for sex workers, despite much  work being done by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) and government.

The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956, states that the private exchange of money for sex is not a crime.  However, anyone who facilitates prostitution, or organises it, is prosecuted. Previously, children of sex workers were not allowed access to local schools. Facing loss of contact with their children once they’ve entered orphanages, society denied worker’s rights to motherhood.[3]  Vulnerable to arrest, for illegal public solicitation and police harassment, many plead guilty to avoid hearings and expensive lawyers.

Human Trafficking

In India, human trafficking is difficult to resolve due to the large rackets; prostitution rings operating through organised crime. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) unearthed information about a human trafficking racket and estimated that around 8000 women were transported to Dubai, using Delhi as a transit point. More recently, there have been reports about a man who trafficked 5000 children from the remotest areas of Jharkhand, in Eastern India, emphasising the ever-growing problem of human trafficking in India.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports the number of registered human trafficking cases has increased by 38.3%, over five years, from 2,848 in 2009 to 3,940 in 2013. Convictions in such cases has declined 45%, from 1,279 in 2009 to 702 in 2013.

Begum and Hussain’s Trafficking Racket


Delhi’s GB Road

In August, Delhi police arrested a couple, Saira Begum and Afaq Hussain, along with six of their aids, suspected of trafficking more than 5000 girls in Nepal, West Bengal, Odisha and other states. Reported to have earned around Rs 100 crore (£10 million), they bought the girls for around Rs. 50,000 (£600) and sold them for Rs 2 lakh (approximately £2500).  The younger the girl is in age, the higher the price.

Police state these systems could not succeed without a large organised crime syndicate behind it.  Three brothels and over a third of the prostitution business, in Delhi’s GB Road area, were run by Hussain and Begum. Hussain and Begum were arrested under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.

The Government


Maneka Gandhi

Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, has stated that Nagpur has become one of the largest human trafficking centres of the country. Disagreeing, senior police officials claim it as a transit site, rather than a hub.  Transferring girls from the North to South, many girls get taken through the city as it falls on the train route.  As trafficking mostly takes place on trains, the government is seeking to raise awareness in stations through posters.  Now they receive around 200,000 calls a month with tip-offs and complaints. An anti-trafficking bill is progressing in Parliament, which would prevent women being caught in the police brothel raids, preventing victim punishment and prosecuting traffickers.

There are also two new policies to aid problems, on trafficking and sex work.  Firstly, is an online complaint management system: Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) e-Box, for people to report sexual offences against children.  Secondly, is an online platform called Mahila e-Haat; this is an online platform for women to gain self-employment and sell their products online.

Amnesty International

Policies on Protecting Human Rights of Sex Workers

New Delhi, INDIA: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

New Delhi, INDIA: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Promoting the decriminalisation of sex work, Amnesty International promotes removing the laws and policies that criminalise or penalise sex work. In this instance, sex work and workers refers to consensual exchanges between adults. Decriminalisation, could allow sex workers to have better access to health care, be able to report the crimes to authorities, without fear of prosecution, and know that their families will not be charged with “living off the proceeds of sex work”, which is currently illegal.

Decriminalisation and Legalisation

Legalising sex work is not equivalent to decriminalising; instead of removing laws it introduces laws and policies specific to sex work, to formally regulate it.  Working in theory, but not in practice, Amnesty International argues that we should examine cases such as Tunisia.  In Tunisia, sex work is legal, but has introduced strict monitoring policies, for example, sex workers must obtain police authorisation if they wish to leave their job. In other words, there are legal times and places for sex work and if people live or work outside of these regulations, they can still be convicted of criminal acts.  In short, to legalise prostitution, a country must make sure human rights of sex workers are respected and because this is difficult, it is more suitable to decriminalise.

Decriminalising Sex Work Does Not Encourage the Sex Industry or Human Trafficking


Protecting sex worker’s rights is not to support the sex work industry. Protecting worker’s rights condemns human rights violations, dangerous practices and discrimination.  Decriminalising sex work is not to encourage human trafficking.  To traffic humans is a grave violation of human rights and does not involve consenting adults.  Without the fear of prosecution, if sex work is decriminalised then there is an opportunity for victims to come forward about being trafficked. It can also mean better workers’ rights and protections.  Currently, if two sex workers live together, this can be considered a brothel and they are open to prosecution.  However, working in the same building can offer much more protection for the workers from violence.  Similarly, government proposals to prosecute those buying sex often leads to a greater risk for sex workers.  Fear of prosecution can lead to sex workers visiting customer’s homes, for customers to avoid police, compromising safety for the workers.



The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recounted an interview with Munni, a sixteen-year-old commercial sex worker, living in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red light district. At ten, she was trafficked from Bangladesh.  A man came to her house, promised her a life in a palace, and left her in a brothel in Kolkata. Twenty other girls lived with Munni, in the brothel, and on the third day, she was in a parade to be selected by men.  When she tried to run, she was beaten.  One day she managed to escape and saw a male police officer, of whom she told her story. This led to her rape by the police officer and his three friends.

Munni states, at her peak, she would get three to four customers a day.  Previously, girls would charge from Rs. 1000 (£12), to Rs. 6500 (£80), but tells of a current flat rate of Rs. 500 (£6) per client, for one hour.  50% of this rate would also go to her ‘aunty’, the brothel owner.

In the interview, Munni explains that human trafficking is very high and this leads to competition.  Five to ten girls a day are brought by traffickers and can be as young as seven. 10,000 sex workers and hundreds of brothels are estimated to exist in Sonagachi.

Hoping that she and one of her regular clients will get married, Munni says that her future family will not be subjected to the brothel life.  However, she also insists that the brothel is her home and her ‘aunty’ looks after her.  If she intended to leave, her ‘aunty’ wouldn’t allow her and society will always label her as a prostitute.

Oasis India


Sold at five or six, by her uncle, to a woman in Mumbai, Roopa’s story is characteristic of Oasis India’s cases. Kept until she was nine, she was sold again into prostitution.  Roopa would have been considered ‘premium status’ at this time, due to her young age.  Older girls can often ‘service’ up to twenty clients a day, earning very little, compared to the wealthy business of human trafficking. Rescues by police can happen, but many girls find adjusting to new life difficult, returning back in Stockholm syndrome behaviour.

In time, the organisation Oasis managed to support Roopa, running a safe house in Mumbai. Over three years, girls are rehabilitated and allowed to become independent.  Now a trainee hairdresser, Roopa is hoping to find her parents.

Background to Oasis India

Beginning in 1993, Oasis India originated in Mumbai.  With support from the UK, the organisation spread to Bangalore and Chennai.  Primarily, Oasis India works in slum communities, brothels and care for victims of abuse and injustice. Not simply a charity, Oasis advocates empowering communities.  This involves creating trust, safety and sustaining the capacity to manage and address community issues. An important aspect of community work is to reintegrate and rehabilitate those excluded from the community.

Integrated Community Development Programme (ICDP)


Vastly educating local understanding and community ownership, Oasis created initiatives including awareness programmes, rallies on child abuse, child labour and the environment. The organisation’s ‘hubs’ offer a fluid response to the needs of the community and each neighbourhood. Sometimes the centres offer sport and others vocational training.  Additionally, Oasis offer a variety of departments dedicated to many aspects of sex worker’s lives:

  • Drop-in centres: women can find health care, tutoring, and care for their children; finding information on finding a life outside of the brothels.
  • Day Care Centres: protecting and caring for the children of sexually exploited women, the day care centre gives the children a play to go during business hours. They also begin the school enrolment process and offer to counsel to mothers.
  • Anti-Human Trafficking: Oasis has a dedicated anti-human trafficking department who collaborates with the police, informants, execute raids and run awareness programmes. The programmes educate families about the warning signs and dangers of human trafficking.
  • Transitional Housing: providing basic needs for people, ranging from women recently rescued from brothels to young boys at risk of joining gangs.

Oasis 2015-2016 Annual Report

In 2015-2016, 10,095 people were reached through awareness programmes of abuse, violence prevention and human trafficking. Through local understanding, Oasis can now rely on communities to inform them about misconduct and report it. In one instance, thirteen boys were trapped in a bag factory, working over eighteen hours and day, in inhumane conditions and forced to hide. Two individuals reported when they had seen the boys after their attendance at an anti-human trafficking (AHT) and child labour awareness programme, held in Bangalore.  Oasis, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (another NGO), AHT Unit and the Child Welfare Committee, all collaborated to raid the factory and rescue the children.  All the boys were eventually reunited with their parents.

The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar)durbar

Not all organisations, seeking to aid the sex worker communities, are NGOs or the government.  Organisations have started to grow from people’s need and want to protect themselves. 65,000 sex workers make up membership of Durbar, in the West Bengal region.  The committee aims to strengthen sex worker’s rights and create policies for protection.

Bharah Dey, a former sex worker, heads the organisation which has led to a huge reduction in violence and effective relations with police. One of the largest aims of Durbar is to support the children of sex workers. The organisation opened a residential home where children can get vocational training and computer skills, as well as attending the local government school. Integrating with mainstream society, facilities are open to the local area, which means children can mix, playing sports such as football, yoga and dance.

Condemning the introduction of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, Dey advocates that prostitution should be seen as a profession. The act aims to make buying sexual services illegal, but places worker’s at greater risk. Additional police raids make it difficult for sex workers, as it is distressing for those with children. Similarly, if a client behaves badly then a worker cannot report it.

Instead of external organisations training workers, Durbar encourages self-regulatory boards.  These are committees of sex workers who educate peer to peer, on issues of safe sex and identifying those under age. If workers are too young, Durbar offers a place at the residential home learning skills, rather than entering prostitution.


Rita Roy is the assistant secretary of USHA, A cooperative providing microfinance and savings schemes to sex workers. Workers struggle to obtain bank accounts, as they often need proof of income and identification. Providing people with the ability to use a formal bank and avoiding local moneylenders, USHA leads sex workers away from those who would ordinarily take advantage of them.  Sex workers can deposit money late at night, avoiding thieves who target them on the street.  Depositing money also gives women more independence as they no longer have to explain their finances to family.  The co-op also offers loans, the most of which are used for children’s education. This has even led to some becoming lawyers or doctors. Many more women have used the loans to educate themselves, build businesses or even buy a flat.

[1] 2006-2007 Unicef report, 2011, from The Global HIV Epidemics among Sex Workers, The World Bank
[2] “HIV/AIDS: Facts and Figures.” Retrieved Jan 30, 2007, from
[3] Jayasree, A. K. (2004). “Searching for justice for body and self in a coercive environment: sex work in Kerala, India”. Reproductive Health Matters 12 (23): pp.58–67.


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