To loosen bonds of poverty and sexual servitude, thousands have banded
together. Second of four.
By John Restakis, Today, TheTyee.ca
USHA Co-op social enterprise: co-op members producing sanitary napkins
for sale to hospitals and women of Sonagachi. Photo: J. Restakis.
Empowered in Calcutta: Story of a Sex Workers' Co-op
The Daughters of Kali
How Calcutta's Sex Workers Built Their Own Empowering Co-op
[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
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.
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 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
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.
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
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
• develop self-employment opportunities for sex workers
• take up activities for the uplift of sex workers and their families
HELPING SEX WORKERS SAVE THEIR MONEY
To join the USHA Multipurpose Co-operative a member must purchase 10
rupees in member shares, plus five rupees for books and materials.
They must be 18 years of age or older. When members take out their
first loan, they must also purchase 400 rupees in investment shares.
Thereafter, if members wish to take out further loans, they must
purchase an additional 500 rupees in investment shares for every
10,000 rupees they borrow. In this way the capital stock of the co-op
grows as their loans increase.
At the end of every year, the dividends from their investment shares
are paid out to the members. No member may hold more than 40,000
shares. In addition to its loan program, the co-op has a range of
plans to help sex workers save:
A recurring deposit scheme in which members deposit multiples of 50
rupees as often as they like and can withdraw the cash whenever they
A monthly deposit scheme that allows members to deposit savings
monthly and which yields nine per cent interest with a five-year
A thrift deposit plan that again allows members to deposit multiples
of 50 rupees, but limits members to loans, and yields seven per cent
interest paid at year's end;
A daily collection plan in which 38 collectors, mainly the children of
members, collect savings directly from the members at the brothels and
make the deposits at the USHA office.
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
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
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 co-
op, quickly recognized the value of the project and became an early
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.
Truth resides in every human heart, and one has to search for it there, and to be guided by truth as one sees it. But no one has a right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth. - Mohandas Gandhi
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