Civil Society News, New Delhi
Indian sex workers who were not given visas to attend an AIDS conference in Washington in July, decided to host a parallel meeting in Kolkata instead.
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is the largest collective of sex workers in the world. Since its representatives could not go to the US, DMSC invited sex workers from 27 different countries to Kolkata to attend Global Hub: Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival.
Global Hub bucks a global trend. It comes at a time when the US and Europe are cracking down on prostitution in the belief that this will reduce trafficking in young girls.
DMSC is based in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district and says that by reaching out to sex workers it has contributed to bringing down the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Both national and global figures have declined.
“We have shown that focused intervention pays. The major transmission of HIV is through sex workers,” says Dr Smarajit Jana, principal of the Sonagachi Research and Training Institute. For over 20 years Dr Jana has worked in Sonagachi. He helped organize the DMSC, the first recognized union of sex workers in India.
At a press conference in Delhi, Dr Jana and Bharati Dey, secretary of DMSC, cautioned against suppressing the sex trade in India. They said the trade needed more transparency and its own rules and regulations. It should come under the category of unorganized labour, they said.
“If you stigmatize the sex trade and put the police after sex workers, the trade will go underground. That will make it harder for us to reach out to sex workers and ensure they get access to services. It could make HIV spiral out of control. Instead, we can develop collectives of sex workers to empower them, curb HIV, and increase their bargaining power,” said Dr Jana.
“We need to discuss the sex trade, laws relating to it, policies and legislative practices by service providers,” he said.
DMSC is not short of critics who say any formal status accorded to prostitution only ends up in more trafficking. But Dr Jana claims sex trafficking has been conflated.
“I too used to believe they were trafficked. After 20 years I know the truth. It takes time and patience,” he says.
In 1991, Dr Jana was working as an epidemologist with the All-India Institute of Public Health and Hygiene when he was asked by NACO to find out the prevalence of HIV among sex workers. He began visiting Kolkata’s red-light areas.
“In the last 10 years more than 900 girls have been removed from the sex trade by us. Contrast this to the police. They rescued only 100 girls. The existing system fails because the police are a major beneficiary of trafficking,” says Dr Jana.
In West Bengal, the DMSC has set up ‘self-regulatory committee boards’ in 33 red-light areas. The boards are headed by government officials, the MLA, a representative from the social welfare board and from the medical fraternity amongst others.
Dr Jana says any girl entering the trade is identified and brought before the committee. Her health and mental condition are examined. She is put in a short stay home, or a hostel run by the social welfare board or sent back home. If she wants to stay in the trade she is counselled on how to deal with her health, police, violence, goons etc.
“We need similar boards in other states,” says Dr Jana. He says the sex trade in India is very different from prostitution in the West. For instance, he says, most sex workers in the West are single and take drugs.
But in India surveys reveal that sex workers have families, even joint families. Often they have fixed clients. “We found no case of drug abuse among prostitutes in north India. Poor women don’t have an education. What options do they have? Their choices are limited to domestic work, construction work or sex work. And sex work provides better money.”
Sex work in India is sometimes seasonal. Dr Jana says their study found that women in south India who work on cashew nut fields or in the jasmine industry got work for only three or four months in the year. During the remaining months, 90 per cent of them earned a living by doing sex work. Most of them were single women who headed families.
Attempts by the government to ‘rehabilitate’ sex workers have failed miserably. A commission by the Supreme Court asked DMSC’s Usha cooperative, which provides loans, health services and livelihood training to sex workers, to look into three aspects of the sex trade – how trafficking can be prevented, rehabilitation and the provision of rights and dignity.
Dr Jana says four studies were done on rehabilitation. In Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai they found sex workers did not want to go back to their villages. They wanted the government to provide accommodation for all family members. But the government sees sex workers as individuals and is willing to provide housing only to the sex worker.
The women said they needed decent pensions of around Rs 10,000 to survive. But the government doles out laughable sums of Rs 200 and Rs 300. And even those are hard to get.
Neither does the government have any facility to shelter the women. Government-run homes are dreaded. No sex worker wants to live there. The general opinion is that they are like prisons.
For livelihood, women are taught skills like candle- making, pickle-making or sewing and stitching which does not earn them an income that can support their families.
Dr Jana says 95 to 97 per cent of women are in the sex trade out of choice. A survey of one million self-identified sex workers revealed that only three to five per cent had been trafficked.
The survey excluded rural sex workers, part time sex workers, transgender sex workers and male sex workers. “Eighty per cent of women sell sex if they don’t get jobs. We have 10 million sex workers so you need to be sensitive and rational before designing a development programme or policy,” he points out.
Doesn’t this indicate that sex work is just due to poverty? Dr Jana says that’s for economists to judge. “We do find there is an increase in the number of sex workers after a disaster. We saw a surge of sex workers in Sonagachi after Cyclone Aila. The cyclone destroyed everything. So the women came to earn.”
Though sex work does provide more money than other menial jobs, the life span of such work is brief. Former sex workers say the retirement age is at 45.
Dr Jana says the problem is that pimps and the police take away a substantial sum of what a sex worker earns. If women can keep 85 per cent of their earnings, they can lead a healthy life after 45, he says. On an average, a sex worker can earn up to Rs 15,000 a month.
The DMSC’s cooperative society, Usha, was started with13 girls. “Now we have 20,000 members and a turnover of Rs 15 crore. Women can take loans to start small businesses after leaving the sex trade. We have a vocational unit too,” says Bharati. The DMSC is cited as a role model.
It is the children of sex workers who will finally transform Sonagachi. “Today some of our programme directors are children of sex workers. There are graduates among them. Some have become football players, representing India abroad. In 1991 when I started this programme not a single child had completed Class 10. Now 80 per cent of them go to school. If this trend continues Sonagachi will see a huge change,” says Dr Jana.