India-Ukraine Prostitution Row: Who Should Apologize?

on February 19 2012 7:51 AM

A group of young, semi-clad Ukrainian women gatecrashed into the Indian embassy in Ukraine's capital Kiev last month, tore down the Indian flag and threw it on the ground.

They were protesting against a new Indian directive that all Ukrainian women between age 15 and 40 should be screened with extraordinary care when they apply for an Indian visa.

The reason: India has lately become apprehensive about the influx of Ukrainian prostitutes into the country.

Ukrainian police have said the four women activists who stormed into the Indian embassy would likely get a jail term of up to four years for their brazen act.

The protesters belonged to the FEMEN group, which has grabbed attention with their topless protests. After ransacking the embassy building on a cold day in January with barely anything to cover their torso, they said India humiliated the Ukrainian women.

Euronews reported activist Oleskandra Shevchenko as saying: “Ukrainian women are not prostitutes…we’ve been fighting this image. Shame on India for trying to insult us this way.”

Prostitution is not legal in India, but sex trade thrives in the country, especially if rackets showcase women from the central Asian countries and the ex-Soviet Republics -- White skin is still an obsession in the dark continent, as it were.

After the row over the disgracing of the Indian flag broke out, the naturally patriotic Indians have shown tremendous amount of empathy for the Ukrainian protesters. Most people participating in discussions on web fora say the embassy directive was crude and insulting.

My dear fellow Indians, would you like it if some foreign government treated all Indian women as prostitutes ? I condemn the insult to our national flag, but we Indians insulted the Ukrainian Women first by treating them as Prostitutes. Are all Ukrainian women prostitutes?, wrote one reader.

Prudish Values India prides itself on its prudish values, but prostitution is not a new scenario in India, nor a newfound problem. The country is home to some of the world's largest brothel towns. Kolkata's red district, Sonagachi, has tens of thousands of prostitutes, who are mainly from poorer neighbours Nepal and Bangladesh.

There were once more than 50,000 sex workers in Mumbai's Kamathipura red district, according to official figures. Though prostitution, pimping and soliciting are illegal, these practices are widely tolerated in the country and there has been a vibrant debate in recent years about the need to legalize and regulate prostitution.

Why Focus on Ukraine?

During the 1990s, prostitution thrived in the ex-Soviet republics which were trying to find feet in the new economic order and were facing severe financial hardships. India was one of the destinations of sex workers from these countries and they were lapped up by the urban rich and famous.

In an October 2010 article the Time magazine said prostitution was one of Ukraine's unstoppable exports.

The poverty and general hopelessness in many villages of eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Romania now run so deep — especially in the wake of the financial crisis — that the promise of a job as a prostitute abroad is enough to get the vast majority of trafficked women to sign up voluntarily, the article said.

An article that appeared in the university of Rhode Island web site at the end of the 1990s vividly explains the breadth and depth of the thriving sex industry in Ukraine.

The 2010 Commonwealth Games, which New Delhi hosted infamously, was an occasion for Indian authorities to crack down on the influx of sex workers into the country.

The president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) said then that prostitutes from different foreign nations come to the country masquerading as tourists, booking short tours.

According to him, most foreign sex workers came from countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan. They have always come from Nepal and Bangladesh, but the post-liberalization India emerged as a favorite destination for international rackets.

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