From their ability to exercise power over women, men through the centuries started using them as merchandise. When in early civilisation men discovered how to trade, they found the demand for women as a sexual commodity for exploitation the easiest to trade. The way the trading worth of roses was increased by bestowing it the value of expressing subtle love, young women were sold as sex merchandise. The difference? Innumerable roses could be scientifically produced, but women with a mind of their own had to be stolen or lured for trading.
The end of such trading is prostitution. Nowadays, some difference is made between voluntary vs forced prostitution, although I don’t subscribe to this distinction. As France’s Green Party corroborates, “The concept of ‘free choice’ of the prostitute is indeed relative in a society where gender inequality is institutionalised.” Without initially falling into some trap, whether for money or social rejection after rape, no woman ever chooses to fulfill a sexual need or desire with unknown men. If that were the case, we would have heard of male brothels exclusively for women. In male prostitution, it’s generally men offering themselves to other men. However, there can be women who sell their bodies out of greed, fulfilling an unfortunate demand created by men. Apart from underprivileged women kidnapped into city brothels in India, a survey reported by Azad India Foundation found women from Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Karnataka are bought for supply to Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, the Middle East, Britain, South Korea and the Philippines. They are severely abused, forced into sex work and become vulnerable to HIV infection. Unrelenting poverty and unemployment are making trafficking in women and girls rampant.
In the 1971 War, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, an orphanage in Kolkata had rescued an abandoned Bangladeshi girl. When a young French intellectual Indophile came looking for a bride, this innocent girl was found to be suitable. With all good intentions, the orphanage made arrangements for Mahuwa’s marriage and her travel to France. When her husband proudly introduced Mahuwa as his wife, people appreciated him for his humane gesture. I came to know her after quite a long time. One day this simple girl confided in me her worry that the noisy grunts and rowdy behaviour emanating from her husband’s room were getting louder, and the number of men visiting him every night was steadily increasing. It was so evident that he was a homosexual, but Mahuwa did not understand that. She never even discovered what marriage meant. When she explained her plight to her orphanage, they told her to adjust to her new home, without listening to her specific concerns. It transpired her husband actually trafficked Mahuwa to make her his housemaid. Luckily I was able to secretly help Mahuwa file for divorce after she became a French citizen. Her story has a happy ending. This brave woman learnt French, found a job, met someone who loved and married her, and they are living in Belgium now. But not everyone is bold and fortunate enough to escape when duped.
Human trafficking is a lucrative industry, second only to the world’s most profitable illegal industry, drug trafficking. In 2005, ILO’s Patrick Belser estimated a global annual profit of $31.6 billion. The UN’s 2008 estimate was that almost 2.5 million people from 127 countries were trafficked. Trafficking women for commercial sexual exploitation violates their dignity and right to life. In India, as rich and poor alike choose to abort baby girls for dowry reasons, there’s a skewed gender ratio. The 2011 census showed the sex ratio of children under age seven to be 109 boys to 100 girls. That means approximately 7 million fewer girls than boys in our 1.2 billion population. So in states like Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat, young girls are openly sold for marriage to older men.
Radical feminists say there’s no voluntary prostitution because the women are coerced to engage in sexual activity, made victims by pimps and traffickers. Indirectly, they come through poverty, drug addiction, personal problems, lack of education and employment possibilities, or “merely by patriarchal social structures between men and women”. Others want prostitution abolished as it ultimately leads to mental, emotional and physical destruction of the women. In consequence, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have enacted laws that criminalise the sex workers’ clients, but not sex workers themselves.
In contrast are those who favour legalisation of prostitution, saying practitioners are independent adult women whose choice should be respected. Former sex worker and founder of Amsterdam’s Prostitution Information Center Mariska Majoor says prostitution is another profession, “It’s only bad if done against one’s will”. Since the mid-1970s, the world’s sex workers have organised. They demand de-criminalisation of prostitution, equal legal protection, improved working conditions, prevention against abuse, the right to pay taxes like other occupations, travel and receive social benefits like pension. The World Charter for Prostitutes Rights was drafted in 1985. As a result, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand have legalised prostitution.
Men across the world don’t hesitate to go to unknown sex workers as per their affordability and without any emotional connect. Because they pay for sex and for household expenses, most men consider the sex worker and their wife or partner as merchandise they own and control. But that is never true. So let’s bury the condemnation of voluntary prostitution. Let’s analyse the horrible forced prostitution facts that amount to rape and avoid treating women as merchandise.
Shombit is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (www.shiningconsulting.com)