Sunday, September 16, 2007

14 September 2007: Sex Workers' Unite

Kolkata’s red light district, Sonagachi, is both famous and infamous the world over. Over the past ten years, public health researchers and feminists have looked to unique grassroots organizing that has flourished there as a model of both women’s empowerment and successful HIV prevention.

Today we visited two different projects working with sex workers in Kolkata, each with very different philosophies and activities. First we visited Apne Aap, an organization dedicated “To end[ing] sex-trafficking of women and children.” We were particularly interested in the arts-based work they do with children of sex workers in Kolkata, including visual art which is collected in the book The Place Where We Live is Called a Red Light District. We visited their community center, which is located outside the red light district. They also provide vocational training for commercial sex workers, such as sewing, and educational programs for children of sex workers, which leads to mainstreaming them in schools, among many other services. The Indian Parliament is currently considering an amendment to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, which would penalize clients for soliciting sex from CSWs. Apne Aap supports this legislation because they see women doing sex work as victims, and therefore anything that criminalizes the sex work industry is seen as benefiting women.

From Apne Aap, we traveled to the Kolkata red light district called Sonagachi, where we visited the organization Durbar. Here’s what they say about themselves on their website (

“Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (or ‘Durbar’, which in Bengali means un-stoppable or indomitable) is a forum of 65,000 sex workers based in West Bengal, India. Durbar is active in challenging and addressing the structural barriers that form the everyday reality of sex workers' lives as they relate to their material deprivation or their social exclusion with the aim of altering them.

Durbar is explicit about its political objective of fighting for recognition of sex work as work and, of sex workers as workers and, for a secure social existence of sex workers and their children. Durbar demands decriminalisation of adult sex work and seeks to reform laws that restrict human rights of sex workers, tend to criminalise them and limit their enfranchisement as full citizens.

The basic approach of Durbar’s programme is pivoted on the principle of “3 R’s” - Respect, Reliance and Recognition. Respect towards sex workers, Reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of the community of sex workers and, Recognition of sex work as an occupation, for protecting their occupational and human rights. Durbar is committed to the 3 R’s in all its activities and involves sex workers’ community in all decision-making and implementation.”

Obviously, their approach is quite different from Apne Aap. When I asked the Executive Committee of Durbar (all CSWs) what they thought about the amendment to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, they responded immediately by saying that it attacks their livelihood, and that it won’t do anything to stop the trafficking of children, which they vehemently oppose. Durbar feels that adult women can make the choice for themselves to be sex workers or not, but that young women and girls under 18 should under no circumstances be forced (or allowed) to do sex work.

In addition to meeting the women who run Durbar, we also got to visit the STD clinic in Sonagachi (which I was interested to learn also treats many clients in addition to CSWs), and meet with people who run the collective bank by and for CSWs. Children of sex workers are employed by the bank to make daily collections from the members (perhaps only Rs 10, about 25¢, but it becomes a significant source of savings, and loans, for the women). To my great delight, we also got to see a performance by Kumal Gandhar, a dance troupe made up of children of sex workers. They were quite proud of a piece they performed about HIV/AIDS, which showed women becoming educated and demanding that men use condoms (a reflection of the organizing sex workers have done in Sonagachi), and I was blown away by a piece the girls did to a text with the refrain “I am that woman,” which addresses and blows apart the ubiquitous virgin/whore dichotomy that seems common the world over.

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