NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Police must treat prostitutes as victims rather than criminals and crack down instead on clients and human traffickers who force women and children to sell their bodies, activists said on Wednesday.
Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in India are kidnapped, sold, coerced or trafficked for sex in a highly organised, yet illicit trade which is the world’s third most lucrative after arms and drugs.
But activists say that while the children and young women are often trapped in slave-like situations, unable to free themselves from their pimps and brothel owners, police treat them as criminals while the real perpetrators get away.
“Hundreds of thousands of victims are invisible and are kept in captivity and have no access to any justice system whatsoever,” said Ruchira Gupta, director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a local charity working against human trafficking.
“On the other hand, the perpetrators of this crime — the profiteers and buyers that constitute the demand for human trafficking — are visible and work with impunity.”
In India, trafficking and profiting by selling a person for sex is illegal, but paying for sex with a prostitute is not unless she is under 18-years-old.
Almost 6,000 cases of trafficking were registered in 2005, but activists say the real number is much higher and on the rise.
Activists say that women are easy targets for police to arrest and round up in brothel raids and on street corners and police rarely investigate or arrest brothel owners or pimps.
Experts, speaking at the launch of a handbook to help police better enforce human trafficking laws, said police needed to understand the issue better.
“The real problem is not the absence of a legal infrastructure, but the importance of those that are empowered to impose the law to know what to do,” said Gary Lewis, South Asia representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
According to the International Labour Organisation, 2.45 million people worldwide are exploited and treated like slaves every year, and another 1.2 million people are trafficked.
Lewis said that, according to some estimates, the global trade in human trafficking generated around $32 billion a year.