New Internationalist

Sex workers with attitude

Issue 368

Shock. Outrage. Middle-class morality suitably scandalized. The reactions were predictable. Even Mari Marcel Thekaekara wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a co-operative of sex workers – and in Communist Kolkata (Calcutta) of all places, where co-ops are usually of the Party, for the Party and by the Party. Then she went to find out for herself.

As I enter the building the first thing that hits me is the sheer, raw woman power. The office is a noisy, bustling, activity-filled place. A few men, mostly behind desks – but the women are unmistakably and completely in control. There are 60,000 women sex workers who are part of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). The name sums it up – durbar meaning ‘indomitable’, ‘unstoppable’. Whoever thought that up was brilliant.

Listening to the women’s stories I am filled with admiration for their guts, their spirit and the manner in which they carry on with their lives, cheerfully and matter-of-factly. There is no self-pity, no whining. Theirs is a precarious, fragile existence often filled with violence and uncertainty. I see women with scars, knife slashes and burn marks. Yet they take everything in their stride. I am intrigued by their pride, the in-your-face attitude, especially in the context of India – a hypocritical society not known for its political correctness, much less its tolerance or sympathy.

How did Durbar start?’ I ask.

Dr Smarajit Jana, who started it all, explains: ‘Everyone wanted a successful HIV/AIDS project. I was sent to do this but soon realized the basic scientific premise was flawed. The entire global scientific community working on HIV/AIDS assumed that the battle could be won using information (awareness) and technology (condoms). I realized pretty fast that the women were not in control of their lives. Their clients, pimps, partners and madams controlled them. They were frequently harassed, arrested and often beaten and raped by the police. The economic exploitation by money lenders was beyond belief. We realized soon enough that only by empowering them collectively, by addressing their economic, political and social exclusion, could we succeed.

Of course, this was simpler in theory than in practice. With thousands of sex workers, it’s a buyers’ market. The macho males paying money didn’t want condoms. So even if 10 sex workers refuse sex without condoms they find an eleventh desperate and willing. That’s it. The system collapses. Every single sex worker had to stand firm, stick by the collective decision. There was no way it would work without the power equation changing.’

Dr Jana’s team began by trying to understand the everyday problems of the community and to seek answers from them. ‘We changed our thinking completely – began addressing the women’s concerns, not just health. The biggest problem was indebtedness. If we were fighting for the rights of these women based on their needs and perceptions, we had to end their economic exploitation.’

This was the genesis of the USHA Multipurpose Co-operative Society. Moneylenders had the women in a vicious stranglehold. A woman who became ill would have to take a loan of 500 rupees [$11] to tide her over. She’d be frantic to get back to work because she’d have to pay 500 rupees interest a month and be ensnared in the moneylender’s trap forever. The interest would pile up relentlessly – between 600 and 1,200 per cent paid to dozens of loan schemes, each one more complex and diabolical than the other.

Why a co-op?’ I ask.

The women decided,’ answers Jana. ‘Banks demanded documents, voters’ identity cards, proof of residence, recommendations – none of which the women could supply. Bankers treated them with contempt too. The old social exclusion bit. We wanted a structure in which the women could participate totally and actively. The co-op won.’

USHA started small, with 13 peer educators who pooled the day’s earnings of a group of sex workers. Then Mrinal Dutta, the current Director, had a brain wave: ‘Sex workers earn a lot, but never save. Why not collect their savings every morning before the money disappears?’ Mrinal’s mother was a sex worker and he understood the problems intimately.

So every morning the collectors now go from house to house collecting the previous night’s earnings. Accounts are meticulously maintained and the women’s knowledge of figures and finance has changed dramatically. Many have become literate, too.

This brilliant idea was the forerunner of a variety of other savings schemes. And USHA’s growth has been remarkable. By the start of 2004 its working capital had reached 25 million rupees ($550,000), its annual turnover 52 million rupees ($1.2 million). Such corporate-style figures have made it the most talked-about co-op in Marxist West Bengal – the success story of the co-op movement. It has 6,000 registered members – only sex workers and their female children can belong – and is run by an elected board of 12 members. The number of members could easily double, but for reasons best known to itself the Government has granted USHA permission to function in just six districts.

When told that they had to register as housewives, one firebrand retorted: ‘The only way I can become a housewife is if you agree to marry me. Are you up to it?’ The embarrassed civil servant literally ran out of the room

There is a twist in the tale. When Dr Jana first sought permission to register USHA the Government refused. Prostitution is illegal in India under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act. The sex workers were advised to register as a co-op of ‘housewives’. The bureaucrats had not bargained for a face-off with feisty sex workers. When told that they had to register as housewives, one firebrand retorted: ‘The only way I can become a housewife is if you agree to marry me. Are you up to it?’ The embarrassed civil servant literally ran out of the room. After six months of close encounters of a similar nature, the administration threw up its hands and gave permission. This was a huge victory for the organization.

The DMSC is possibly the only organization of sex workers in India which states clearly and unambiguously that its purpose is not to ‘rehabilitate’ sex workers – that it exists to fight for their rights. It is explicit about its political objective of fighting for recognition of their work as work and of themselves as workers, and for a secure social existence for them and their children. Durbar also seeks to reform laws that criminalize them and impinge on their human rights. Similarly, USHA is clear that it exists not for ‘economic rehabilitation’ but to provide financial support in a crisis and to prevent economic exploitation. Its major victory has been to liberate the women – and disempower the pimp-moneylender-trafficker nexus.

Such phenomenal growth made professional management a necessity. With its technical expertise and infrastructure, USHA now serves as the major financial institution for the entire range of sex workers’ organizations affiliated to Durbar. Each of these was started to combat one particular problem.

The Sramjeebee Mahila Sangha aims to stop the violence of local hoodlums and thugs. The Binodini Shramik Union hopes to join the larger international labour movement to fight for the rights and recognition of sex workers as workers. Komol Gandhar promotes music, dance and theatre troupes.

The Saathi Sangathan, or Companions Collective, was formed to get the babus – non-paying partners of the sex workers, who live with them, often fathering children – to support the fight against the violence and coercion routinely meted out to sex workers and their children. Berabhenge (‘Tearing Fences’) is designed for kids who are haunted by the fact that they do not know who their father is. Often they become the butt of cruel jokes in school when their personal histories leak out. The stigma causes many to drop out of school. Rahul Niketan and Indubala Abasik Vidyala are residential homes – kids live there and go to nearby schools.

Durbar has created 27 ‘Self Regulatory Boards’ to prevent ‘trafficking’ of women and minors, stop coercion and ensure that those who enter the trade do so with consent and in full knowledge of what the job entails. Durjoy (‘Hard to Vanquish’) Durbar has just been registered to formalize the loose affiliation of all the myriad groups.

The medical intervention which was the basis for everything has been hugely successful. This was what created trust between the women and the medical team and was the entry point into the area. It began with small clinics in the heart of the district so that women could use them easily and freely. A great deal of work is done for those with HIV/AIDS. Hotline and counselling centres have been set up and an army of health workers criss-crosses the territory, trying to be available when needed.

Durbar and USHA are unique because they are owned and managed completely by the community – not by an NGO, not by men in suits, not by middle-class professionals or consultants. It is clearly their organization.

What impact has it made on you personally?’ I ask Kajol Bose, the President of USHA.

Before, if someone was dying we could not get money except at exorbitant rates of interest,’ she replies. ‘Now I’ve built a house for my family. Paid for my daughter’s wedding. I have money in the bank. But USHA is about more than just money. I am called in to settle local disputes. My word counts. I’m someone here. Not just a nobody like before.’

Bharati De adds: ‘Our condition is a hundred times better than before. Before Durbar, the police would treat us like dirt. Arrest, beat, rape, abuse us, call us filthy names. Now when I go to the police station, they say: “Have a seat.” Can you imagine – the police saying “have a seat” to me!’

She continues: ‘Today our women stand in front of a mike, in front of thousands of people, and demand our rights. Yes, life has changed for us. It was a hard fight, but now we can hold our heads up high.’

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a regular contributor to the NI.

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