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Gender + Sexuality

How Calcutta's Sex Workers Built Their Own Empowering Co-op

To loosen bonds of poverty and sexual servitude, thousands have banded together. Second of four.

John Restakis 20 Jan

John Restakis is executive director of the BC Co-operative Association in Vancouver, consults on international co-op development projects, is a founding member of the Advisory Committee for the MA Program in Community Development at UVic, and co-founded the Bologna Summer Program for Co-operative Studies at the University of Bologna.

This article and three others in this series was adapted with permission from the chapter "Daughters of Kali" in Restakis's book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, a wide-ranging look at co-operative initiatives around the world published in October by New Society Publishers.

[Editor's note: This article is second in a series adapted with permission from the chapter "Daughters of Kali" in the book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, New Society Publishers.]

The word "Durbar" means "unstoppable" or “indomitable” in Bangla. It is also the name a group of Calcutta sex workers gave to a unique co-operative organization they founded 15 years ago in the brothel district of Sonagachi. They formed Durbar with the purpose of giving sex workers the power to defend their human rights, decriminalizing sex work and having it recognized as a valid profession and improve the living and working conditions of sex workers and their communities. This is the story of how Durbar came to be, evolving eventually into the world famous USHA Multipurpose Co-operative that provides its sex worker members with everything from condoms, to health care, to credit.

Key to the tale is Dr. Smarjit Jana. When the World Health Organization asked Jana and his team to lead an AIDS prevention project in Sonagachi in 1992, he already knew well the dire health risks faced by that neighbourhood's sex workers. An epidemiologist teaching at the All India Institute, Jana had just finished the first baseline survey of Sonagachi's sex worker population, finding of the 450 women surveyed, 45 per cent used occasional contraception in some form with only 27 per cent using it regularly. Only 2.7 per cent were able to insist on the use of condoms. Laboratory results showed that of 360 sex workers tested, over 80 per cent were found infected with one or more STDs while about one per cent tested positive for HIV infection and four of these had syphilis. The question uppermost in the minds of the women surveyed: "Will I be able to have a child?"

Now Jana and his team took on launching the STD/HIV Intervention Program (SHIP). It had three components: the provision of health services; information and education on sexually transmitted diseases; and promotion of condom usage among sex workers.

In addition, Jana's SHIP team remained clear about their approach. They believed that sex work was a profession and had to be seen as legitimate. No attempts were made to rescue or rehabilitate sex workers, nor were moral positions taken on their work. The emphasis instead was on improving the material conditions of sex workers and the communities in which they live and work.

Health was central to this task. For sex workers, a regular checkup is an occupational necessity as the risk of STD or HIV infection (or re-infection) is an occupational health problem that they constantly face. Isolated and easily intimidated, the women were often powerless to resist demands from men to have unprotected sex.

The realization of this link between health and power was the catalyst for the birth of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the instrument through which Sonagachi's sex workers began to challenge centuries-old attitudes to themselves and to their work.

The approach taken by the SHIP team in Sonagachi was unprecedented. It formed the basis for a relationship of mutual trust that built up a rapport between the project and the community. It also required the creation of a cadre of educators that could organize within, and be accepted by, the community. The project team realized that the project would be effective only if sex workers were approached directly by their peers. They needed people who were intimate with the life and culture of the community and could communicate with other sex workers at a very personal level.

582px version of Calcutta brothel district
Sonagachi, Calcutta's oldest brothel district. Photo: J. Restakis.

A group of 12 women called Peer Educators, who were either active in the sex trade or retired, were recruited from the community. This recruitment and training of sex workers to organize the work within the community was the turning point in the project. Sex workers themselves became active subjects of the work -- real leaders, not simply the objects of study or treatment. It was the kernel from which a government-sponsored program was transformed into an advocacy organization organized and run by the sex workers themselves.

Peer power

Peer Educators were the key that unlocked the closed world of sex work and the sex worker community. They established a new identity for sex workers and a new freedom to interact as women with value. Everything flowed from this -- the creation of a community based on equality, choice and the ability to act, and react, as agents with a common purpose. This was unprecedented, and news of it spread like wildfire across the city. For the first time, sex workers found, and revealed, a self-identity with which to confront the world. Sex workers began to see themselves as part of society, not just outcasts. The question of social identity and self-respect was to remain central both to the SHIP project and to the work taken up by the DMSC later.

Peer Educators were responsible for getting sex workers to visit the clinic regularly to have their health checks done. Each of them had their own network within the community, their own contacts and outreach areas. In their new role, they made frequent visits to other sex workers in the area and established close contacts with many.

But it soon became clear that this was not enough. Putul Singh, a member of the founding group put it this way: "It was not enough to inform them of the risks of unprotected sex and the threat to their lives. The sex workers had to be first made to value their own lives. If they learn to value themselves, then they will believe in the need to protect their health and their lives."

The challenge lay in the need to build a positive self-image, and for the sex workers to gain self-worth and confidence. Without this, sex workers would never develop an interest in investing in and planning for their future. HIV could not be a priority until other issues were addressed. This work in the program gave Peer Educators the space to build solidarity around a common goal and to think beyond their immediate survival. It prompted the women to reflect on the circumstances that determined their lives. Their world changed with the insight that the sex worker community was isolated, vilified and exploited not as a result of their profession, but as a consequence of unequal power relations. The social realities surrounding sex work meant that health issues were linked to the patterns of power and control that ultimately dominated the lives of these women.

Towards a permanent structure

At long discussions among the Peer Educators and the project steering committee at the SHIP office, what emerged was not the need for behavioral change, but the need to change the power structures that surrounded sex work itself. The world of pimps and madams, police and politicians, continual violence, thugs and traffickers and loan sharks, would have to be confronted.

It was clear that all these interlocking issues could not be dealt with by the existing organizational setup. A new, permanent structure was required that would allow the community to take up these issues directly.

This was the genesis of DMSC or Durbar, launched by nine SHIP members in March 1995. Durbar was registered as a society, but from the outset its operating philosophy and structure were co-operative and democratic. These were essential elements in building the kind of mutual support and united action that were needed to give members control over their own bodies, sexuality, health and life.

582px version of Kids in Calcutta
Sonagachi kids at a communal water source. Photo: J. Restakis.

At its very first meeting, the issue that took immediate priority was the indebtedness of sex workers and the discrimination they faced from the financial system. The unwillingness of banks to serve sex workers meant that they relied on moneylenders that charged from 300 to 1,200 per cent interest for loans. It was a system of extreme exploitation which ensured that sex workers would never save money, never repay their debts, never be able to educate their children or have their daughters marry, and would always remain subject to the intimidation and violence of "collectors" and the nexus of control in which they were caught.

A number of strategies were discussed. One was to lobby the banks. This was rejected as a waste of effort. A microfinance program was debated. This too was rejected. Finally, a co-operative society was proposed. They decided that the co-op form would best guarantee direct ownership and control of the organization by the members as well as provide the flexibility to engage in other activities. What the founders eventually decided on was a multipurpose co-op that could address the manifold issues they had to deal with.

But the co-op's application for incorporation was rejected because the law required members be of "good moral character." Ministry staff suggested hopefully that instead of "sex worker" the members might write "housewife" as their occupation. The irony of this was somehow lost on them.

The women refused. Aside from the deep insult, they saw recognition of their profession as a central aspect of their struggle. A huge debate ensued, in which the women argued that good moral character was a relative term. They defended their profession. Unlike others, they did not bribe people, they did not kill people, they were not corrupt -- unlike more than a few government officials and their sponsors. They pointed out that they were providing a service to society. They gave pleasure. They got paid for their services as do all skilled tradespeople. What was immoral about this? they demanded.

During one particularly heated exchange, when a ministry official again proposed that they enter "housewife" on the forms, one of the exasperated women finally bellowed, "Fine!" She would write "housewife." Would the official now agree to marry her?

This brought the discussion to an abrupt and awkward end, with the official literally running from the room.

Against the backlash

It was soon after that Minister Saral Dev, to his credit, supported recognition of the USHA Multipurpose Co-operative and had the provision for moral character dropped from the act.

USHA Multipurpose Co-operative was finally incorporated on June 21, 1995. Its objectives were:

• enable the sex workers to generate a sustainable economy
• act as a credit co-operative and give loans to members
• sell daily necessities at reasonable rates
• supply condoms to various organizations who run STD/HIV intervention programmes
• develop self-employment opportunities for sex workers
• take up activities for the uplift of sex workers and their families

From 1995 to 1998, USHA had only 200 members. Women were fearful. The co-ops attempt to establish a credit system for sex workers was a direct challenge to the moneylenders and their sponsors and their reaction was swift and brutal. Dr. Jana and his staff received death threats. Bombs were used against co-op organizers and outreach workers. Sex workers who had joined the co-op were savagely beaten up.

Most vicious of all were the "youth clubs" who were controlled by landlords and who were in league with the loan sharks who financed their activities. These included "community festivals," religious events and the collection of puja (offerings) for temples and assorted Hindu deities. All these activities were part of the trappings of local power in the district and a cover for the more sinister role these youth played in intimidating and harassing the women on behalf of the local bosses. It took two years of determined struggle to dissolve the fear that sex workers had of joining the co-op.

Today, of the 16,000 sex workers that work the area, 12,800 are members of USHA. Through their membership in USHA, sex workers have been able to save money, take out loans and even invest in businesses and property as a means of transiting from sex work, particularly in their older years (see sidebar for how this works). Without access to credit and the ability to save money, sex work is akin to bonded slavery.

This small measure of economic power and independence also means that a sex worker can now afford to refuse service to a client who won't wear a condom or who is a threat to her safety.

Growth curve

The government, despite its original reluctance to incorporate the co-op, quickly recognized the value of the project and became an early investor.

To date over a quarter of USHA members (3,228) have taken loans valued at $2.5 million. The loan recovery rate is about 95 per cent. USHA charges 11 per cent on loans, does not compound interest and charges interest only on the balance of the loan outstanding, not the original loan amount. How are these loans used? In order of member priority: to finance their children's education, to cover the costs of a child's marriage (usually the dowry) and to purchase or build a home.

Prompted by the success of USHA in Sonagachi, sex workers in other communities took up the fight and lobbied government to allow USHA to expand its operations into their districts. In addition to Sonagachi, USHA has now established branches in the Calcutta districts of Durgapur, Asansol, Dhulian, Konti and Siliguri. Plans are underway to expand throughout West Bengal to complement the work that Durbar is doing beyond the borders of the city.

Tomorrow: Two women of Sonagachi, and the difference the sex worker co-operative has made in their lives.  [Tyee]

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