Human Rights, as the name suggests, should be available to all individuals irrespective of background, disadvantages or situation. A nation seeks to uphold and protect this institution by enforcement of legislation to ensure the protection of its people.

Prostitution remains one of the oldest and most deeply pervasive forms of subjugation and exploitation. The legalization of prostitution is one such move made by the governments in order to extend this protection to as many within its purview. The decriminalization approach advocates that prostitution and such activities be completely withdrawn from the criminal code and be treated the same way as other legitimate commercial activities. However, this policy is fraught with allegations claiming that government’s ulterior motive in legalizing prostitution is to snatch the economic benefits reaped by the underground economy. An issue of human exploitation has been now been reduced to an issue of taxation for state income generation. Viewed only as a revenue creating venture in a capitalist economy, the debate for thoughtful implementation of legislation has taken a backseat. . The prostitution industry accounts for 5% of the GDP in Netherlands, 3% in Japan, and between 2% to 14% of all economic activity in Thailand and Indonesia – we have no assurance of what the government’s true intention is.

Legalization is likely to benefit only a select few and has been dubbed as an ‘elitist’ approach to the problem. To simplify this, only those within the basic reach and under the eye of legislation are likely to benefit for the advantages it would entail whereas those beyond the convenient reach of government aid would continue to suffer from their unchanged and miserable plight.

Many would agree that prostitution is an undesirable activity in societal terms. After all, the 1949 Anti Prostitution Convention said in substance that “prostitution and the evil that accompanies it are incompatible with the dignity and value of a human being”, and was ratified by 72 nations.

An “abolitionist” country like France, with a population estimated at 61 million, has half as many prostituted people on its territory as does a small country like the Netherlands (16 million) and 20 times fewer than a country like Germany, with a population of around 82.4 million. In countries where it has been legalized, the demand has grown manifold.

Watts and Zimmerman identified prostitution as one of the eight prevalent forms of global violence against women. Women make up for 90% of the prostitution labor force and men have the 'purchasing power'. This only succeeds at reasserting a division based on gender as more and more women would be largely regarded as objects of sexual pleasure whose services are to be purchased. Legalization intensifies the commodification of women's bodies and greatly expands the legal and illegal sectors of the economy. Prostitution pre–exists as a system and an institution that patriarchy has a stake in and will maintain, with or without women’s consent.. No client asks the women whether or not they are there with their full consent – that is immaterial to what prostitution is all about: the exercise of a certain conception of masculinity that identifies with power, sexual privilege and gratification.

To augment the concern this issue has raised, legalization has been followed by uncontrolled growth of illegal brothels. These brothels, beyond the scope of legislation and scrutiny, completely defeat the purpose of legalization. In Austria, 90% of prostituted people are originally from other countries. The foreigners and minors in these brothels constitute 80% of the employed in Amsterdam and 70% of them have no papers, no identity and no human rights. These women are trafficked at prices ranging from $6000 to $15000 and bound by their obligations and servitude. The post-legalization impacts have been undesirable and disgraceful – while the plight of these women has gone from bad to worse, Dutch government takes in US $1 billion $202 million annually in taxes, thereby becoming one of Europe’s largest pimps.

The advocates legalizing prostitution in Australia maintained that taking such a step would solve problems endemic to such a profession by controlling organized crime of the sex industry, and gradually deregulating its expansion and thereby minimizing the violence to which prostituted people are subjected. In fact, the legislation has solved none of these problems: on the contrary, it has given rise to new ones, including child prostitution, which has increased significantly since legalization. Brothels are expanding and police in Victoria estimate that there are 400 illegal brothels as opposed to the 100 legal ones.. Although there was a belief that legalization would make possible control of the sex industry, the illegal industry is now “out of control”.

A government may be well intentioned in its approach towards legalization, but more often than not, its intentions are misdirected and fail to address the problem in hand. Studies by CATW indicate that such establishments only protect the customers and do little to guarantee the safety of the prostitutes. The pimps, ironically, become respectable businessmen. Those gaining impunity are the exploiters- the exploited remain helpless. Behind closed doors, anything can happen. Everything is permissible and there is no one to "protect" the women.

When interviewed by the CATW, a majority of the women involved in prostitution expressed their disapproval towards the idea the idea of legalization. They felt that the government would be taking away their last shred of respect by sanctioning such an illicit activity. At the end of the day, however respectable and recognized a profession prostitution may become, it undeniably does a nation more harm than good. The main objective of decriminalization, which is to curb prostitution in the long run, seems to have backfired completely.

The alternative is the policy adopted by Sweden, which criminalizes those who benefit from prostitution – the pimps and the customers – and decriminalizes the activities of the prostituted people, who are regarded as the prey and the victims of organized pimping. Sweden has shown the way forward as this is a viable and inclusive policy.

(Cover photo by Rohit Rajvardhan, on assignment for The Citizen)