The Daughters of Kali
The Daughters of
A story of hope and self-empowerment in Calcutta’s oldest red-light district.
Kali reigns over Calcutta. She is the Dark Goddess. Emblematic of destructive rage and triumphal power, four-armed, red-tongued, swinging a severed head and wearing a garland of human skulls, she dances in ecstatic fury over the body of her consort, Siva. A tribal deity that draws forth fear and frenetic faith in equal measure, Kali is complex, contradictory and mystical, blending chaos and wisdom in a manner that makes the Terrible Mother the perfect symbol for Calcutta, the city named in her honour.
Kalighat temple remains one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines and the origin of the city that has grown around it. For centuries pilgrims have flocked to the temple near the banks of the Hooghly River, a branch of the Ganges that empties into the Bay of Bengal. Today, as before, pilgrims, and the vast economy of religiosity that accompanies them, continue to flow here. Where pilgrims came, so too did the discarded women. Some -- the widows, the outcast – sought mere shelter and sustenance; others came to service both pilgrim and priest. In both cases desperation drove many inevitably to prostitution.
And through the ages there stood Kali -- protectress of the outcast, the despised and the powerless -- none more so than the women who trade sex for a living.
From Vancouver to Sonagachi
I had come to Calcutta to learn about Asia’s first, and largest, sex workers’ co-operative. I had first found out about USHA Multipurpose Co-operative when I was looking for models that could be applied to a bold project that my association in Vancouver was supporting in the city’s Downtown East Side. It was here that nearly 60 women from the sex trade had disappeared in what was to become Canada’s most horrific case of serial murder against women. Sex workers in Vancouver were fearful. They had seen their friends vanish without a trace and were determined to establish a safe haven for their trade.
The BC Co-operative Association had helped them incorporate a co-operative as a means of taking control over their work and providing themselves some modicum of safety. It was in Calcutta that women in the sex trade had first developed the social and political organization that was to become a model for empowering sex workers the world over.
Calcutta is a new city, just over 300 hundred years old, and a British creation. It was founded in 1690 by Job Charnock, a British merchantman and an agent for the English East India Company. As it grew, a confusion of Indian and Western influences, a commercial melting pot and a court for empire, there also arose an army of the poor and the destitute that were to become a lasting symbol of the city. In swelling numbers, the city absorbed the fortune seekers and those whom fortune forgot.
Sonagachi, Calcutta’s largest and most notorious red-light district, is situated at the north end of Calcutta. The setting is one of decrepit buildings lining close, congested lanes crowded along a noisy and chaotic marketplace. Rats are a plague. Ravens are everywhere. An estimated 4,000 sex workers live and work in the 370 brothels that operate here. During festival periods, this number jumps as women join the trade to pay for the added expenses of the holy days. The buildings that are used for the sex trade house several brothels that range in size from five to 25 rooms.
Living space is cramped and dark, with toilet and washing facilities used in common. It is not unusual for four to six women to share a single room, partitioned by curtains. I visited a room where three generations of a family share space with itinerant sex workers bringing the number of inhabitants to ten.
The sex trade in Sonagachi relies on the 20,000 or so men who visit the district regularly. They are mostly migrant workers living away from their families and eking out a living doing physical labor, often in the construction industry.
Sex workers operate independently or under the control of madams (malkin) or pimps (mastaan). The pimps can be seen congregating in clusters on the street and are recognizable by their attire; they wear a white sleeveless undershirt over a sarong. Mastaan collect one-quarter of the earnings while madams take an even 50 percent. Rooms are rented on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. If a sex worker does well, in time she may come to own her own room, subletting it to other sex workers, or even acquire other rooms that she then rents as a madam in her own right.
For any observer of the sexual culture of contemporary India, the relative tolerance of sex and sex work in ancient India presents a stark contrast to the suppression of sexuality that coincided with the imposition of Victorian values during English rule and the rise of a Puritan strain of Hinduism. And while Western culture has undergone a revolution in sexuality (one with its own dark side to be sure), sexual culture in India remains deeply problematic and steeped in patriarchy, hypocrisy, superstition and a continuing infantilization of sex.
One need only consider the degree to which Bollywood films are soaked with that peculiar mix of rampant desire and chasteness to see how stunted and socially frustrated sexuality has become in India. But aside from the tortured gyrations of Bollywood actors, which are admittedly hilarious, there is little to laugh at. The consequences of this sexual repression, combined with a patriarchal culture, are truly catastrophic for women.
After living in the shadows, however, the more than 16,000 women that work in Calcutta’s sex trade are claiming their place in the light of day, and this series will tell a few of their stories as part of a larger narrative: how the sex workers of Sonagachi formed first Durbar (more formally known as the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee) to advocate for their basic rights. And then built the USHA Multipurpose Co-operative, which has gone on to provide everything from condoms to credit to its members, allowing many to lift themselves out of the most abject poverty and even chart a path out of prostitution.
Here then, to close this first of four pieces, is the story of one of those women, a beneficiary of both Durbar and USHA.
Sonuka looks older than her 45 years. Small and frail, she has an aura of gentleness, of silence. Yet when she smiles her face comes to life, lit up by a flash of white teeth and the sparkle of lively brown eyes. A pair of delicate, sparrow-like feet peep out from beneath her burgundy-and cream-colored sari. She is a figure of fragility steeled by a fierce instinct for survival. We are sitting in her room, at the back of the ground floor in one of Sonagachi’s more dilapitaded brothels. I am there with Shanto, a development worker who has worked with Durbar for years and is acting as my interpreter, and three other members of the association.
Sonuka’s room is perhaps nine feet by nine and painted a vivid green. The furniture consists of a platform bed that dominates the room, a glass-fronted armoire and a metal cupboard. Shelves set in the walls hold the stainless steel pots and bowls used for washing and eating, ratproof storage containers and the brightly colored clothes, bags, and sarees that are arranged with care on the shelves and wall hooks around the room.
The room is spotless. Just outside the door is a tiny anteroom where a television is playing and Durbar staff prepare chai on the kerosene burner that serves as a stove. Beyond, the dark hallway leads to an inner courtyard that rises through the heart of the building and where, in the twilight gloom, the intimate inner life of the brothel unfolds. The women, seated on the steps or leaning over the balustrade on the first floor, speak softly, passing the time by exchanging the day’s gossip as they do in every village in India.
Sonuka has lived in this room for 28 years. She arrived in Sonagachi at the age of 14 when she began her life as a prostitute. Like all the young girls that arrive here, she had no idea what awaited her.
Sonuka was born in the small village of Birbhum in West Bengal. At the age of 12, she was married to a man of 20. Still a child, and suffering from a variety of ailments that had gone untreated, she was unable to perform sexually for her husband who, along with her in-laws, became resentful and began to abuse her. Her first beating came because she didn’t know how to properly handle the cows in her care. This was followed by endless bouts of beatings and torture and charges that she was impotent, lazy, a curse on the household.
When finally her body swelled up and she became immobile on account of gout her father took her back home by force, fearing for her life.
It was during her period of convalescence that Sonuka met a young man from a neighboring village who claimed he had contacts in Calcutta. Determined not to return to her husband and in-laws, she asked her friend to look out for any work that she might do in the city. Soon, word came that he had found work for her as a housemaid and she could now escape a life of servitude and abuse. At the age of 14 Sonuka made a brave bid for her freedom -- a young girl traveling far from home to an uncertain fate. When Sonuka arrived at her place of employment, she found she had been sold by her “friend” to a brothel for a price of 5,000 rupees or 50 dollars. She never saw him again.
Isolated, with nowhere to go, Sonuka was trapped. It took her two years of sex work, turning six, eight, ten tricks a day and serving four or five customers a night to pay off the debt. She was lucky. The brothel owner was generous and released her once the debt was paid. By the age of 16, Sonuka was an experienced sex worker and she sought her own place, the same room she now occupies.
Today, Sonuka leases her room from the brothel owner and is an independent operator. She has three children, two daughters and a son. All of them have received an education, and her younger daughter is graduating from college. They live in Birbhum, in a house Sonuka inherited, and she divides her time between Sonagachi and the village.
Sonuka joined USHA in 2001, after she heard about the association from fellow workers. She took out a loan of 50,000 rupees in 2007 that she will pay off in 2010, and has a daily savings account. Sonuka has also taken out a second loan that she is using to pay for the marriage of her younger daughter. Her older daughter, too, had been married. But the familiar pattern of abuse at the hands of in-laws prompted Durbar and USHA to intervene on her daughter’s behalf. They sent representatives to the village. They took up the case, threatened legal action against the in-laws and ultimately helped the daughter obtain a divorce. Without the organization’s support this would have been unthinkable in a small village, regardless of how bad the abuse was.
When she retires, Sonuka’s dream is to open a shop in the village with the help of a loan from USHA.
Before departing, I ask Sonuka if there is anything in her life as a sex worker that has given her pleasure. She breaks into a soft flow of laughter. Without a shadow of hesitation she says, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.”
How the Durbar sex worker co-operative grew to have more than 12,000 members, and how it empowers those who belong.
How Calcutta’s Sex Workers Built Their Own Empowering Co-op.
To break the bonds of poverty and sexual servitude, thousands of prostitutes banded together.
The word “Durbar” means “unstoppable” or “indomitable” in Bangla. It is also the name a group of Calcutta sex workers gave to a remarkably effective co-operative organization they founded 15 years ago in the brothel district of Sonagachi. They formed Durbar with the purpose of giving give 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 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 percent using it regularly. Only 2.7 percent were able to insist on the use of condoms. Laboratory results showed that of 360 sex workers tested, over 80 percent were found infected with one or more STDs while about 1 percent 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, the 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.
A group of twelve 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 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.
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.
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 300–1,200 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.
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:
From 1995 to 1998, USHA had only 200 members. Women were fearful. The co-op’s 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
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.
The government, despite its original reluctance to incorporate the coop, 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 percent. USHA charges 11 percent 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.
Two women of Sonagachi, and the difference the sex worker co-operative has made in their lives.
Cruel realities drove Onima and Rheka to sex work in Calcutta. Building a co-op with their sisters lifted them from desperation. Third of four.
The first two articles of this series told how enlightened public health workers working with prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta’s oldest brothel district, built Durbar, an organization intended to defend the rights of sex workers, promote their physical and financial health, and counter discrimination. The government-sanctioned USHA Multipurpose Co-op, which lends money and other support to sex workers, is without a doubt one of Durbar’s most impressive achievements. But it is only one project among many that the organization has launched in a campaign that has to fight on many fronts and at many levels.
Here are the stories of these two sex workers, the realities that drove them to prostitution, and the life differences made by their memberships in the sex worker co-operative.
Onima Das is an imposing woman. She sits like a monument in the center of her bed, surrounded by half a dozen men. Some of them are discussing ledgers and papers that are spread out fanwise before her. After we introduce ourselves, someone suggests that our interview take place with the men present. Some of the men seem reluctant to leave us alone. I insist that the interview take place in private and that the men leave. At a word from Onima, the men gather their papers and quietly depart.
At age 52, Onima Das has the regal bearing of a woman used to being respected and obeyed. She has a massive frame, a face that still bears the signs of the great beauty she possessed as a younger woman, and a cascade of raven-black hair that descends to her waist. Draped in a superb saree of lemon yellow and midnight blue she is the picture of prosperity and power. Hers is a true Sonagachi success story.
Onima Das was born in Calcutta. Raised in the poorer northern section of the city, she was married at a young age. Relying on her husband’s meager earnings, she struggled to raise four sons. When her husband fell ill and was unable to work, Onima was forced to find employment to support her family. She found work at a tobacco packing plant. Bad as the conditions were, they were soon made worse when the men at the factory started a relentless campaign of sexual harassment, their unceasing demands for sexual favors turning her working life into a living nightmare. This went on until one day, on her commute home, an acquaintance suggested that she become a sex worker during the day and not tell her family. This way, she argued, Onima would receive some decent payment for the sexual favors she was expected to give out for free at the factory.
At the age of 37, a respectable married woman with a family, Onima arrived in Sonagachi to become a “flying sex worker” -- one of the legions of women who trade sex in the day while returning home at night.
Onima kept up this secret life until one day, having grown suspicious, her husband followed her to the brothel where she worked. Confronted by him, Onima defended her actions stating flatly that she had no choice, that she was constantly attacked by men at the tobacco factory, indeed anywhere she attempted to work, and that without her earnings the family would starve.
Reluctantly, her husband and her family accepted her decision on the condition that she remain a day sex worker and return to her home at night. Till the day he died in 2007, the relationship between Onima and her husband remained strong, sustained by a mutual love and respect and the acceptance of a stark necessity born of desperation.
For the first three years, Onima was in great demand and she had a large roster of clients. Then she established an exclusive relationship with one man that continues to this day. Her permanent partner, known as a babu and a common feature in the trade, is also now a business partner and helps keep Onima’s accounts. He was among the group of men we first met on arriving and he joined in our discussion near the end of the interview.
Onima has done well for herself. From her earnings and a sharp business sense she has succeeded in raising and educating her sons, she owns and operates a saree shop in Calcutta and she has been able to purchase four rooms in Sonagachi that she sublets to other sex workers. Onima has a daily savings scheme and has taken out four loans, three of which she has paid back and a fourth she is currently paying off. USHA and Durbar, she claims, are the sole reasons for her success and the reason she has been able to go into business.
Within the hierarchy of the sex trade, Onima Das is a respected madam and entrepreneur. She was also USHA’s first member and a powerful advocate, recruited by Durbar staff in the course of its door-to door campaign to help lead the association’s education and organizing work in the neighborhood. She has been a force to be reckoned with ever since.
Rheka Roy was first sold to a brothel owner in Uttar Pradesh when she was eleven years old. At the time, she was working as a housemaid and living with her mother in the West Bengal village of Shamnagar where she was born, near the Bangladesh border. Like so many of the village girls she received no education, was illiterate and worked as soon as she was able to help support her family.
She was spotted by a woman acting as a recruiting agent for a trafficker and was enticed to go to Uttar Pradesh with the promise of employment. Her selling price to the trafficker was 8,000 rupees, or $171.
When Rheka arrived in Uttar Pradesh, a world away from her small village, she was locked in a room with two other minors. The room had a sink and toilet; all three girls lived as prisoners and never left the room.
Rheka was kept here for two years, until she began to menstruate. Then she was forced into prostitution.
Frequently, police would raid the building. They would go through the motions of searching the building for illegal activity, but Rheka and the other girls would be hidden in an underground dungeon beneath the floor, where they could hear the police tromping through the rooms just inches above their heads. All of this was a charade. The police knew about the hideaways and the traffickers were forewarned, but the raids kept up appearances and were part of an elaborate system of bribes and payoffs. It wasn’t until she was 15 that Rheka was finally rescued and sent to a government hostel. She escaped, fled to Calcutta and once again ended up as a bonded sex worker in a brothel. One of her clients however, was a powerful local thug, a goondah, who took a liking to her. He gained her release and brought her first to Sonagachi and then back to her home village.
Back home Rheka discovered her family in a desperate economic state, just barely surviving. With that combination of cold-blooded realism and truly heroic personal sacrifice that is so often found among these women, Rheka concluded that the best option for her family was for her to return to the sex trade. She was illiterate, had no skills and her most valuable assets -- a will of iron and physical beauty -- would earn her far more as a sex worker than anything else she could hope for. She returned to Sonagachi.
Seventeen years later, Rheka remains close to her family. She has become a highly valued, and highly priced, sex worker. At 34, she has a voluptuous beauty and her appraising eyes glitter with bold self-assurance, defiance and the indefinable, yet unmistakable, current of sexual energy. She knows her worth. At the top of her trade, she commands as much as 1,500 rupees for a night. She has a reliable roster of 400–500 men that visit her over the course of a year and sees 4 or 5 clients a day. She keeps ten percent of her earnings for herself and her 14-year-old daughter who lives with her and sends the rest home to her mother and siblings — three sisters and one brother, all of whom are now married and depend on her. She now owns the room she has been occupying for the last 15 years. She has no adhyas to whom she sublets saying, “I have struggled hard all my life. . . I have no desire to exploit other women.”
Rheka is also now a senior staff person with the Durbar sex worker co-operative, helping to administer the organization’s many programs. She takes part in an adult education program run by Durbar for its members and for the first time in her life is receiving a formal education. She has mastered basic numeracy skills and is now literate in Bengali. It has taken her three years. These are hard-won victories, wrested from a lifetime of heartbreak and hardship. Her body still carries the marks of abuse and violence.
Like many other women I saw in Sonagachi, Rheka wears a bindi, the vermillion dot Hindu women wear on their forehead to show they are married. I asked Rheka, does she have any dreams for herself? Her answer contradicts her open, smiling face. “I have had so many dreams broken that there are none left for myself,” she says. “My dreams live through my daughter, seeing her become independent.”
Will she ever settle down with one man? Still smiling, still defiant, she answers, “Love has always cheated me. I don’t want to fall in love anymore. I want only to be left alone with money as my companion.”
Measuring a sex worker co-op’s success and limits, as patriarchy, poverty and powerless foster prostitution.
The Durbar co-op’s successes must be measured against vast injustices that foster prostitution everywhere. Last of four.
Braided throughout the stories of prostitutes told in this series of articles, binding those stories together in a pattern, are the three elements that underpin the sex trade in Sonagachi and most everywhere else: poverty, patriarchy and powerlessness.
All the women I spoke to, both individually and in groups, were driven to sex work by the desperation brought on by poverty. The money they earn, especially if they are new to the trade, is siphoned off to support an intricate superstructure of pimps, thugs, madams, landlords, moneylenders, police and the politicians who sit at the top of the heap. For all of these, it is essential that sex work remains an underground activity that is never legitimized.
Legitimacy would mean the end of graft, the system of payoffs and bribes that feed the spectral figures that loom behind every woman working the street. This is the system that maintains the internal exploitation of the trade and the perpetual poverty at the bottom.
Outside, in the villages where most of these women come from, the pattern is the same if more difficult to discern. The women are still at the bottom, do the hardest work for the least money, have the fewest options. The subjection they endure is systemic and essential to the patriarchy that still rules India. As the stories I’ve shared with you this week show, the humiliation of women through sexual harassment in the workplace is a pervasive phenomenon.
Everywhere in India, women are expected to submit to the continuous sexual advances of their male co-workers. In the unskilled professions, particularly the construction industry, women workers are required to service their male counterparts if they hope to keep their jobs. It is a major factor in women’s decision to take up sex work.
The habitual behavior of Indian men, impelled by a mix of sexual frustration and gender entitlement, drive many women to the trade while the men themselves provide the market that sustains it. The fact that there is so little protection for women, so little recourse for complaint and restitution, is what makes this chain of economic dependence, sexual harassment, exploitation and social ostracism so profoundly unjust.
As was bitterly remarked by the women of Sonagachi when they sought medical treatment, the same physicians that refused to treat them in the daytime would be their customers at night.
The ostracism and discrimination that sex workers face extends to their children. To be a known child of a sex worker means social humiliation, exclusion from schools and banishment from the innumerable social activities that make a child part of the broader community.
Then there is the issue of human trafficking. Every day, dozens of young girls arrive in Calcutta as indentured slaves to the sex trade, many from the poor backwaters of Nepal or Bangladesh. They are part of the vast land of lost souls that populate the sex trade stretching across the face of Asia and feeding the unappeasable appetites of a market that grows daily.
Combating trafficking and the entry of minors in the sex trade has been a major priority for Durbar in Sonagachi and throughout West Bengal. Once a minor has been identified in the trade, Durbar members often intervene directly with brothel owners and pimps to encourage them to release these minors, arguing that their employment only harms the trade and provides an additional reason for police and political harassment.
Durbar members also help unite minors with their families and assist them in getting into school. The association also runs its own residences, training facilities and schools that provide essential support to minors who, for one reason or another, cannot be returned to their families.
When the first base-line survey was completed by the Sonagachi Project in 1992 over a quarter of the women working in the sex trade were minors. By 2008, that figure had dropped to an astounding 0.5 percent.
Through skilled and patient organizing, and a growing capacity for the creation of community through co-operation, Durbar and its constituent organizations have granted sex workers the power to defend their interests and emerge from the shadows of their trade. But more than anything, the work of Durbar illustrates that in the extreme circumstances of a marginalized and exploited community such as sex workers in India, political activism alone is insufficient.
The heart of Durbar’s success is its capacity to create a new community. And what made this possible was the forging of a new social identity for its members. Cooperation and the sense of mutual need were essential to this task.
By working together to solve mutual problems sex workers began to identify with each other not as isolated and competing individuals but as a group with a common identity and a shared experience. Co-operation gave them a new social identity. This was, and remains, an identity they have forged for themselves. Of all the gifts that co-operation has given them, from credit and financial security to the education of their children, this sense of a new self, of a common social identity, is by far the most precious. It is the foundation and future for everything else. As every organizer knows, the first step to empowerment is the recognition of self-worth and the identification of one’s interests with that of others. Political mobilization depends on this.
Since the Sonagachi Project began and sex workers started organizing, the impact on the lives of Durbar members and the broader community has been immense. The association has established 12 HIV and general health clinics that see more than 3,000 patients a month. Forty per cent of these patients are male. The use of condoms among sex workers in Sonagachi has gone from 2.7 per cent in 1992 to 86 percent today, the highest in India. The prevalence of HIV infection among sex workers has stabilized at around 5.2 per cent. By comparison, the incidence in Mumbai and Chennai is over 20 per cent.
The creation of 32 literacy centers for adults and children alike has tripled the literacy rate among sex workers from 4 per cent in 1992 to 12 per cent in 2005. Four hundred adult sex workers and over 700 children are enrolled in these programs.
Among the children enrolled at Durbar learning centers, over 77 percent have been admitted to mainstream schools, slowly reversing the institutionalized discrimination of the school system against the children of sex workers. The incidence of violence and abuse against sex workers in Sonagachi has fallen dramatically. The women refuse to submit to it. The beatings and rapes that they endured at the hands of thugs and police have subsided. Perpetrators know that the impunity they enjoyed for years is over.
Despite these achievements, and despite the undisputed power of Durbar as a model for grass-roots organizing within the sex industry, the challenges faced by the sex workers of Sonagachi and elsewhere in India are still immense.
The legitimation of sex work, the primary political issue for the movement, is also laden with difficulty. Even among Durbar supporters this issue presents problems. Some believe that if sex work were to be decriminalized it would become an acceptable option for more women, particularly from more affluent families. Their entry into the trade could adversely affect the incomes of the mainly poor women who now work in the industry. Legitimation would also entail government regulation and oversight, something sex workers reflexively resist.
The moral questions that surround sex work are not so easily dispensed with by the claim that prostitution is a profession like any other. It isn’t. If sex work is an extension and expression of gender inequality and abuse, unless these social conditions are changed the trade itself is tainted. Legitimation without reform means normalizing the social attitudes and conditions that have driven so many of these women to the trade. This is a conundrum that has no easy solution despite what anyone, including sex workers, say.
What is clear is that the current criminalization of sex work leads neither to social change -- in fact, it is essential to maintaining those very systems of abuse and exploitation -- or to improving the condition of sex workers, and, least of all, to ending the practice.
It is also clear that without the economic and social power that their organizations give them, sex workers will continue to labor in the shadows.
Durbar is dragging these discomfiting issues into the light and, in the process, rehumanizing sex workers as women of value with a place of their own to claim in society. The co-op form, directly embodying and expressing the true voices of these women, is an absolute necessity in this struggle. The democratic and communitarian character of their co-op not only binds the women together in a shared sense of identity, it acts as the primary means for mediating their common interest with the rest of society. The co-op and the broader collective of Durbar itself provides them with a public face and a political voice.
Durbar reveals that in India what separates the sex worker from the respectable housewife is not morality but poverty, powerlessness and misogyny. It is a revelation that makes possible the reclamation of self worth for the sex worker
while damning the social conditions that make sex work a necessity.