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Prostitution is often described as the world's oldest profession. Although this claim is disputed and there are arguments that hunting or subsistence farming predate prostitution, Head (2009) maintains that wherever there has been money, goods, or services to be bartered, somebody has bartered them for sex. Looking at the records of the ancient world, prostitution was referred as early as 18th Century BCE in the code of Hammurabi. Brothels are said to have been instituted by Solon, an ancient Greek statesman and lawmaker in the 6th Century BCE. In 1161 AD, King Henry II accepted prostitution as a fact of life and sought to regulate it instead of suppressing it (ibid). Till the present day, the rationale for repressing prostitution can differ extensively from fundamental moral and ethical abhorrence, to apprehensions regarding its effects on society in general and on those who practice it in particular. In most cases, however, prostitution remains an exploitative procedure.
In India too, prostitution existed from ancient times, however, instituionalised prostitution in India began during the British East India Company's rule in the late 18th Century. The Company entered India under the pretext of trade and commerce which would eventually bring about modernisaton and stability. However within a century, by virtue of their military might, the British annexed a major part of the country and enslaved its people. Marshall (2001) observes that this military ascendancy possessed by the British would permit them in the next fifty years to overpower all the remaining Indian states of any significance, either by occupying them or compelling their rulers to become inferior allies. Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) became the Company's main settlements, for the reason that these provinces had an abundant supply of cotton for textiles (ibid). Datta (2004) notes that towards the end of the 18th century, the British men in Calcutta outnumbered European women, by a ratio of 4000:250. As a result, to satiate their soldiers' need for sexual gratification, and to prevent them from going astray into vicious homosexuality, the British felt it was essential to establish red-light districts in cantonments that were out of bounds for civilians. A similar pattern was witnessed in Bombay which became a thriving centre for prostitution.
Prostitution is a burning issue in India today and has always been a major point of concern. Presently the estimated number of prostitutes or commercial sex workers in India, according to a Human Rights Watch report is around 15 million (Rani 2008), and the numbers are increasing. The government however projects this figure as 3 million (ExpressIndia 2007). According to a survey a projected 50 % rise has been witnessed in less than a decade (Bhat 2006). According to another study on prostitution in India, 35.47 per cent of the sex workers entered the trade before the age of 18 years (ExpressIndia 2007). Other studies also reveal that India has an startling number of 3,00,000 brothels in 1100 identified red-light areas, housing nearly 5 million children in addition to commercial sex workers (Burman 2008). Bombay alone is home to more than 100,000 prostitutes and is Asia's largest sex industry center (Rani 2008). Poverty, unemployment, human trafficking, illiteracy, desertion are some of the reasons due to which women are forced into this profession. However these factors are not limited to women alone, men in India are also increasingly giving in to this profession (DNA 2009). Of these poverty remains the singularly largest cause of prostitution; however it is not the only reason. Helplessness of men and women also force them into the flesh trade. Brothel owners and pimps also run rackets wherein unsuspecting girls are lured under the pretext of love, whereby they elope from their homes only to end up in brothels. Women sometimes enter the trade after desertion by their husbands, or they are trafficked through coercion and deception. Ill treatment by parents, bad company, family prostitutes, social customs, inability to arrange marriage, lack of sex education, prior incest and rape, and early marriage, are some other causes of prostitution (Rani 2008). Economic causes for turning to prostitution include poverty and economic distress, wherein some parents are forced to sell their children for monetary benefits. Desire for physical pleasure, greed, and dejection are some of the psychological causes of turning to prostitution. As the examples above clearly indicate, women mostly enter this profession involuntarily. Most of the women who are illegally trafficked across international borders into India are from the economically deprived neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh.
Nepal is extremely poor and maintains a cordial economic and political relationship with India (Roy 2008). These factors have helped ease the trafficking of Nepali women and girls to brothels in India. As a result up to half of Mumbai's estimated 100,000 brothel workers come from Nepal and around 60 per cent of those trafficked into prostitution are adolescent girls in the age group of 12 to 16 years. Here in India the brothels are firmly kept under controlled, and the girls are continually supervised; as a result of which fleeing away is practically not possible. Severe beatings and threats are also used by the captors to keep inmates in order. The sex workers also fear being arrested by the police and being captured by other brothel agents if they are found on the streets (ibid). In India and Nepal alike, the existing laws have had virtually no real effect on curbing prostitution and local police and officials patronise brothels and safeguared traffickers and brothel owners. In turn the police are paid bribes and offered protection money to prevent any raids and to bail out under-age girls who are arrested.
In India many transsexuals or eunuchs are also sex workers. They are rejected by their families and they face opposition from the public and with the denial of employment, they take to begging and then enter the sex market.