India will not consider legalising commercial sex or giving licences to brothels, Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury has said.
"I am ready to legalise brothels or red light areas if the sex workers say their decision is informed. In most cases their choice is not informed but is forced due to poverty or other reasons," Chowdhury said.
"Many sex workers ask me why I am withholding this issue. But I patiently listen to them and, in turn, ask them whether they would allow their daughters to enter the trade. The answer has always been a complete silence - and they drop their demands," Chowdhury said on the sidelines of a human trafficking conference.
The conference was organised by the UN office on Drugs and Crime along with the ministry of women and child development ahead of the International Women's Day March 8.
The minister said her government has no intention of legalising or licensing brothels, but would remain committed to combating human trafficking, especially of women and children.
Human trafficking means recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people by means of threat, use of force or other forms of coercion like abduction for the purpose of exploitation.
According to UN estimates, approximately 150,000 people are trafficked within South Asia annually, with children and young women being lured from their homes with promises of a good job, good marriage or stardom in the entertainment industry.
Many are forced into prostitution or slavery where they suffer unspeakable indignities and hardship.
Organisations like the Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha have been demanding the legalisation of commercial sex workers since 1984.
Khairati Lal Bhola, president of the Sabha, said: "The government must accept this demand for at least the better health and education of the 5.4 million children of sex workers."
Bhola said a survey conducted during 1990-96 revealed that there were more than 7.5 million call girls, 2.38 million prostitutes, 1,100 red light areas and 300,000 brothels across the country.
Now, more than a decade later, the numbers has gone up manifold and the condition of sex workers is still vulnerable, especially due to the threat of diseases like AIDS.
Pressing for the need to legalise prostitution, he said: "Not only will the government earn a tax on their income, it will help in chucking out agents, middlemen, goons and corrupt police officials who take hafta (protection money) from them.
"Sex workers can earn more to provide education to their children, who can be prevented from inheriting their mother's profession."
Chowdhury, however, said human trafficking of women largely depends on the principle of demand and supply.
"My government is planning to bring amendments to the existing Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and clients visiting brothels would be penalised," she said.
Asked why the government was not directing police to clamp down on red light areas in the country, the minister said: "It is feared that it may spread to residential colonies if we take such measures in the present scenario. After analysing the consequences, we will act accordingly," she said.
Chowdhury appreciated the 24 percent increase in fund allocation to her ministry by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and said: "The government understands the needs and demands of women and is committed to its promise to empower them."
Micro-finance schemes that allow women to borrow money from the government to start their own small industries of weaving, knitting, painting and others have yielded tremendous results, she said, adding that now the focus would be on encouraging women to do highly skilled jobs and earn more.