While sex trafficking often grabs the headlines and attention, there are many other ways in which women and girls are forced into lives of prostitution. No matter how a girl enters prostitution — whether she is responding to the pressures of her circumstances or is actually coerced — the experience leaves a lasting imprint on her future.
Economic necessity, a lack of employment options, drug addiction or coercion by family, pimps or traffickers are all factors that can force women into sexual slavery. Paradoxically, it’s the countries with the most straitlaced and sexually conservative societies, such as India, Pakistan and Iran, that have disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitutes. Since having sex with girlfriends may not be an option for most men in these cultures, prostitutes have become an acceptable solution.
Alex Majoli / Magnum
Take India, for example. There are 2 million to 3 million prostitutes in India, a significant number of whom entered the sex industry unwillingly. One study found that of Indian and Nepali prostitutes who began as teenagers, about half said they had been coerced into the brothels. Meanwhile women who started in their 20s were more likely to have made the choices themselves, often to feed their children.
In some countries with strong class hierarchies, certain lower-class women are practically born into prostitution. In India and Nepal, for example, where the caste system is strong, girls from certain castes are pushed into prostitution from a young age, many times by their mothers. Some studies report that close to 90 percent of sex workers’ daughters in India join the profession.
Once a girl or women enters prostitution it can be hard to leave. It’s not uncommon for pimps to use a variety of methods to force women to continue serving as prostitutes. Often, they lure girls with alcohol or drugs, build up their dependency and use this addiction as a means of control. They may also threaten girls with the shame they might bring on their families if they leave or the punishments they might suffer if they go to the police.
Joachim Ladefoged / VII
But a study of nine countries showed that 89 percent of people in prostitution do want to escape. As a result, many girls or women who are enslaved in prostitution eventually come to accept their circumstances as fate, and resign themselves to selling sex because they perceive themselves to have no other options. A study of prostitutes in nine countries showed that 70 to 95 percent had been physically assaulted; 68 percent suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
Educating and empowering women and girls is key to helping them escape and stay out of prostitution. Various groups globally are using this strategy. One example is New Light, an organization in one of the oldest red light areas of Kolkata, India, which attracts sex workers from the city, Bangladesh and Nepal. The group provides shelter, education, health care and legal aid for high-risk children, girls and women in the community.
New Light is just one group doing this type of work. By supporting such organizations, be it through donating our time or money, we can work to help combat the vicious and complex cycle of forced prostitution.
GEMS is an organization designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. Watch the trailer for their 2007 documentary Very Young Girls.
Apne Aap organizes small groups of women and girls at risk or affected by trafficking into self-empowerment groups across India to access three fundamental rights – education, dignified livelihood and legal empowerment. See photos of Gloria Steinem's visit to Apne Aap programs in Forbesganj, Bihar.
Check out Half the Sky Movement's partners who are working to end forced prostitution here.