May 25, 2006 , By Jonathan Allen
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Plans to toughen India's laws to prevent human trafficking could drive prostitutes underground and jeopardize HIV-prevention in a country suffering the world's second-highest caseload, health officials said on Thursday.
The legislation, which would make it an offence to visit a brothel to have sex with a victim of trafficking, has been proposed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
But it has run into criticism from the Ministry of Health and its HIV/AIDS program coordinators.
"It (the law) is guided by moral feelings and righteousness. And it will be a disaster for HIV prevention, I am sure of that," Dr Smarajit Jana of the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) told Reuters.
The women's ministry wants to tackle human trafficking by also handing out tougher penalties to people who operate brothels.
"This act basically says that brothel-based sex work will end and that will be very damaging for sex workers," Mona Mishra, who leads the United Nations Development Programme's trafficking and HIV prevention project, told Reuters. "The brothels are at least place where you can negotiate safety and insist on condom use." NACO says the changes may end up pushing the sex trade deeper into the shadows, making it harder for health workers to reach some of the most vulnerable people in a country which, by government figures, has 5.2 million people living with HIV — the second largest caseload in the world after South Africa.
The National Network of Sex Workers, which is also campaigning against some of the amendments, says that the law's new definition of trafficking is so vague that the police could apply it to all sex workers.
At the moment, it is illegal to run a brothel in India but not to visit one. The upshot of the new law, campaigners say, is that clients will steer clear of brothels for fear of arrest. amounts to annexation of Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem and establishment of permanent Jewish settlement in the West Bank. This illegal annexation will be protected by the Sharon Wall, constructed within the Palestinian territory. Such a ‘final’ settlement will not be acceptable to the Palestinians and to those who support their cause all over the world and the principles of law and justice.
India's health secretary echoed those concerns.
"Sex workers cannot be driven underground, and anything that threatens them makes monitoring them much more difficult," P K Hota told Reuters.
But Reva Nayyar, India's women and child development secretary, says the fears are unfounded and that NACO's health workers would still be able to keep in contact with sex workers.
"Of course they can still find them (sex workers) – they're just across the GB Road," she said, referring to New Delhi's red light district. She said it was necessary to punish clients who were encouraging the trade and exploitation of underage children.
The National Network of Sex Workers argues that sex workers themselves can be effective watchdogs against trafficking.
Putul Singh, a sex worker in the northern city of Kolkata, said she was part of a committee that helped rescue under-aged girls from being forced into the trade.
"We have helped send almost 370 women home," she said.
Parliament is expected to vote on the changes to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act during the monsoon session beginning in June.