Does the ban on prostitution violate the right to personal autonomy?

We belong to an age where people value their right to make a choice about themselves over anything else. This right of personal autonomy extends to the choice of occupation that one chooses to support oneself and their family economically. But the society’s assumed stand on the morality of professions can weigh more than that right to make a choice about one’s mainstay in life. One similar  example is the occupation of flesh. Today, prostitution is banned in various countries due to the morality metre of the general public and subsequent endorsement by the governments.

Is prostitution morally wrong? Are there no upsides to this profession? Can it be more regulated and well managed instead of being banned completely? Has the ban on prostitution helped the society and its people become more ethical and respectful? Have there been policies to support the people engaged professionally in prostitution by way of alternatives? 

Prostitution as a Profession

The debate surrounding the legalisation of prostitution is multifaceted, encompassing ethical, social, and public health considerations. The arguments against legalisation, as presented by Janice G. Raymond, emphasise concerns such as increased sex trafficking, exploitation of women, and negative impacts on public health. These arguments contend that legalising or decriminalising prostitution may inadvertently fuel an industry that preys on vulnerable individuals. One major concern is the reported rise in child prostitution in regions where prostitution has been legalised, such as the state of Victoria in Australia. The argument posits that legalisation can inadvertently create an environment conducive to the exploitation of minors. Moreover, the claim that legalised systems fail to protect women engaged in prostitution challenges the notion that regulation ensures safety.

The ethical debates surrounding prostitution extend to issues of choice and autonomy. Critics argue that legalisation may not enhance women's choices, pointing to studies indicating that a significant percentage of women in prostitution may not enter the profession voluntarily. This raises questions about whether legalisation truly empowers individuals or simply provides a legal framework for exploitation.

Contrary to these arguments, several European countries, including Germany, Netherlands, and Switzerland, have legalised prostitution, adopting regulatory measures and offering social benefits to sex workers. The proponents of legalisation argue that a regulated framework provides better conditions for those involved in the profession, including health insurance, taxation, and social benefits. The global landscape on prostitution legalisation varies significantly. Countries like New Zealand, Brazil, and Canada have adopted diverse approaches, while others like China and Iran maintain strict illegality. The recent recognition of sex work as a "profession" by the Supreme Court in India adds a new dimension to the ongoing discourse.

This issue of the legalisation of prostitution involves complex considerations of human rights, public health, and societal values. While some argue that regulation can protect sex workers and improve conditions, others contend that it may exacerbate issues like human trafficking and exploitation. The global diversity in approaches to prostitution reflects the ongoing struggle to strike a balance between personal autonomy, societal values, and the need to address the potential harms associated with the profession.

Legal Stance of Nepal 

The historical backdrop of prostitution in Nepal is deeply rooted in cultural practices, notably the Devadasi system, where girls under 18 were dedicated to temple service as "dasis," essentially involving them in prostitution. Traditionally, this trade was confined to specific caste groups, such as the Badi and Deuki, positioned at the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Badi women and girls were recruited as dancers and singers for the entertainment and sexual services of rulers and religious leaders. As the demand for these services declined, prostitution became a means of survival for the Badi community. Similarly, the Deuki tradition involved young girls from socially disadvantaged families being offered to temples, limiting their rights to marriage and education, often leading them into prostitution. Although the Deuki practice was abolished in the 1990s, its consequences persisted for many affected women and girls.

The intertwining of sex trafficking and the sex trade in Nepal led to the development of national policies primarily focused on deterring trafficking activities, resulting in the codification of prostitution as a form of exploitation through legislations like the Human Trafficking (Control) Act of 1986. This approach, informed by abolitionist discourses, has shaped the legal landscape surrounding prostitution.

Presently, prostitution is criminalised under the National Penal Code of 2074 in Nepal. Section 119 prohibits the solicitation of prostitution, carrying a sentence of imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of up to thirty thousand rupees. Section 120 criminalises providing premises or means for prostitution, with penalties including imprisonment for up to six months or a fine not exceeding five thousand rupees.

While the Constitution of Nepal guarantees the right to equality and non-discrimination, the criminalization of prostitution creates barriers for sex workers to access basic services and protection, fostering fear of reporting violence or seeking medical assistance.

Debates on legal approaches to prostitution in Nepal have been ongoing, with some ministers advocating for the promotion and legalisation of sex tourism. The Constitution's guarantee of equality conflicts with the existing criminalization of prostitution. Some anticipate a potential shift in the legal landscape, especially considering the challenges faced by sex workers and the broader human rights context. However, as of now, prostitution remains illegal in Nepal, and any potential changes will likely hinge on evolving societal attitudes and legal reforms.

Impacts on the Professional Minorities 

The ban on prostitution in Nepal, while ostensibly aimed at protecting personal autonomy, has had profound and, in some cases, adverse effects on marginalised groups, such as the Badi community. According to the 2011 Census, the Badi population, numbering 38,603 individuals, constitutes less than one percent of Nepal's total population. Predominantly residing in the midwestern region, particularly in districts like Kailali, Bardia, Surkhet, Bajhang, Salyan, and Dang, Badi settlements face ongoing socio-economic challenges.

Despite initiatives like the 2007 protests and a subsequent 26-point agreement with the government, the Badi community continues to grapple with poverty and social marginalisation. The Cabinet's decision in 2009 aimed to rehabilitate Badi women by providing land and income-generating skills to shift them away from prostitution. However, the community's persistent protests highlight the government's failure to implement the promised measures even after a decade.

Many Badi women still find themselves caught in the same cycle of hardships their predecessors faced, with inadequate shelters, early marriages, and financial struggles. The ban on prostitution, instead of offering alternative livelihoods, has plunged them into further difficulties. The lack of educational opportunities and technical training leaves them with limited options, pushing some women and young girls back into sex work to sustain their families.

The struggles of the Badi community underscore the complexity of implementing a prostitution ban without comprehensive support systems in place. The ban's unintended consequences on professional minorities like the Badi women highlight the need for nuanced policies that address the root causes of vulnerability, offering sustainable alternatives and opportunities for marginalised groups rather than merely restricting their autonomy.


The case of Nepal, with its historical roots in cultural practices like the Devadasi system, reflects the challenges of addressing prostitution within a nuanced socio-cultural context. While the ban ostensibly aims to protect personal autonomy, its unintended consequences on marginalised groups, particularly the Badi community, underscore the importance of comprehensive support systems and alternative livelihoods. Sweden's pioneering Nordic model, criminalising the purchase but not the sale of sex, offers a unique perspective on regulation. This approach places the burden on buyers rather than sex workers, aiming to address the exploitative aspects of the profession while allowing individuals agency over their choices. As the world grapples with finding a balanced approach, the emphasis should be on addressing the root causes of vulnerability, offering sustainable alternatives, and ensuring that policies respect and protect the autonomy of individuals involved in sex work. Striking this delicate balance is essential to navigate the intricate terrain between personal autonomy, societal values, and the need to mitigate potential harms associated with the profession.