CALCUTTA, India-Some 5,000 sex workers are holding a weeklong conference
in this eastern city calling on the government officials and lawmakers to legalize prostitution and homosexuality, two moves the sex workers say would
discourage harassment against them and buoy efforts to fight the spread of
the dreaded AIDS disease in India.
Despite one-year prison sentences for prostitution, sex workers are a common
sight in India's major urban centers and along highways.
Prostitutes at the conference, which started Wednesday and was organized by
India's National Network of Sex Workers, say that legalizing the trade would
help deter harassment by police, pimps and the mafia controlling the trade.
They also argue that abolishing a law that makes homosexuality a crime-introduced by British colonists in the early 20th century -would
encourage gays suffering from AIDS to seek treatment. Under that law, homosexuals can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
India has the world's second-highest number of AIDS patients after South Africa, but many gays with the disease are afraid to come forward, fearing
punishment and the stigma attached to being homosexual.
"Homosexuality is rampant, but it's all hush-hush because we know if we come
out in the open, we will be ridiculed," said male sex worker Rahul Das. "Most homosexuals are scared of the society and the draconian law.
On Thursday, a young man stood in a huge tent, raising his voice and jabbing
the air with his long, painted fingernails to highlight his problems as a male sex worker.
"Recently a male sex worker was raped by three men. When we complained to police, they laughed and asked 'Can a man get raped?" said 27-year-old Bipul
Chakraborty to an audience comprised mostly of women prostitutes in Calcutta's congested Songachi red-light district.
"Our problems are similar to yours and we expect you to help us through your
organized movement," he said.
Last year, nearly 610,000 Indians contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, increasing the overall number of infected Indians to about 4.5
million, according to a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Women prostitutes number nearly two million in India, according to the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, a Calcutta-based women prostitutes' forum.
Figures for male prostitutes weren't available, though there are nongovernment organizations and government records show there are 5,000 male
sex workers in Calcutta alone.
India's National Network of Sex Workers runs anti-AIDS campaigns, health clinics and development programs for the children of sex workers besides
lobbying for legalization of the sex trade.
"We are trying to unite for our cause and we will not give up our fight for
recognition and dignity," Chakraborty said.