Strength in Numbers: Sex Worker Collectives in India

By Bharati Dey and Rita Roy India,

Bharati Dey, 52 years old, from Kolkata, India, is a former sex worker and now heads the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar). This collective of 75,000 sex workers from across the West Bengal region was founded in 1995 and is managed by sex workers and their children. Durbar, which means ‘unstoppable’ in Bengali, aims to strengthen sex workers’ rights through solidarity and reduce the stigma and discrimination they face. Rita Roy, 38 years old, is a sex worker in the Kolkata’s Sonagachi red light district. She is a member of Durbar and also the assistant secretary of USHA [which means ‘sword’ in Bengali], a co-operative providing micro-finance and savings schemes to sex workers. It started in 1995 with just 13 members, and now has more than 23,000.

Bharati Dey

I was a sex worker at one time, but I am retired now. I went into sex work because my husband left and I had to feed myself and my two sons. Sex work offered me a good amount of money and flexible working hours. I worked in a rural area, in a brothel. At that time we had so many problems; from police raids to violence from these goondas (hooligans) who would come to the brothels and beat the sex workers.

That is why Durbar was formed because these problems, violence and discrimination, were being faced by all sex-workers in all red light districts. Now we stand together fighting these things. With the formation of the collective, violence has gone down and almost stopped. Relations with the police [are] much better now too – they will listen if sex workers have something to say.

Organizing and being in a collective is very important when you are a sex worker because otherwise you can be vulnerable.

Organizing and being in a collective is very important when you are a sex worker because otherwise you can be vulnerable.
Bharati Dey

Durbar has really made a big difference for sex workers in this area, and for their children too. When I was working in a brothel, I had my two boys with me because there was no [other] option. Usually in a brothel, a sex worker only has one room so when we are with a client, the children have nowhere to go. The environments in the red light districts are not good for children and especially not if they are trying to study. We also used to find that the children of sex workers were bullied at school, leading to high drop-out rates.”

One of Durbar’s missions is to support the children of sex workers – to open opportunities for them and to end discrimination. So very early on we opened a residential home. At the moment there are 86 children at the home and they attend the government school nearby. At the hostel there are provisions for vocational training and computer skills training. There are also provisions for sports – football training, yoga training, dance training, basketball, volleyball and all these things and a few indoor games.

The facilities are so good that boys and girls from the local area come to the hostel to take part in our various sporting activities that are going on. So the children are able to mix with mainstream society and the stigma is reducing. Now children can say ‘I am the child of a sex worker’.

For over 10 years Durbar has been fighting against the amendment of Immoral Traffic Prevention Act [to make buying sexual services illegal in India] because these laws create tension and problems for sex workers. We know that the proposals before Parliament since 2006 to criminalize buying sex will make things harder for us and give us more problems with the police. When the police used to raid us, it was very frightening for the children; and if a client behaves badly you cannot report it. More laws against us may bring these problems back. When it was first proposed we mobilized 9,000 sex workers to march on the Parliament [in the capital New Delhi] to protest. The amendment was not passed but still today we are doing advocacy in the Parliament to ensure that no further legal sanctions are placed on us. Sex workers are workers and we need our rights. This should be recognized as a profession rather than as a crime.

One of the things I am most proud of is the self-regulatory boards that we have set up in some of the red light districts. These are committees of sex workers who, among other things, conduct peer to peer education on issues like safe sex and identifying anyone who is below 18 years of age or who might be working as a sex worker against their will.

We do not want minors working as sex workers, or anyone who is not doing it as their own choice.
Bharati Dey

We do not want minors working as sex workers, or anyone who is not doing it as their own choice.

Sometimes we find girls who are too young, or slightly older women who have not been able to pay off their dowry and so the husband has sent them out to earn money in the brothels. We talk with all the newcomers and try to find out how they have come into sex work. We can offer them counselling or, if they are too young, a place at the residential home where they can learn vocational skills or computing. Only if they are over 18 and willing can they join the profession.  

We have come a very long way in 20 years as Durbar. Whenever we go anywhere now, we introduce ourselves as sex workers. If we aren’t able to tell people we are sex workers, how will we ever be able to fight for our rights? First we need to introduce ourselves as sex workers and then we can get people to listen. Previously we did not even have the courage to speak with someone at a senior level like the policymakers. But when we go under the banner of Durbar we are given the time, we are given the due respect, and we are able to speak to these people on better terms.

Rita Roy

Previously, sex workers were not able to have a bank account because many of them didn’t have any ID or proof of income. So what used to happen was that they would keep their earnings with local money lenders but at the end of the month when they went to collect their money, the lenders would say ‘what money?’ ‘When did you give it?’ or ‘You have already taken it’ and refuse to give the money to them.

Now with the formation of USHA we find that sex workers are coming and saving money in the cooperative. We are very flexible with our members – there is no set amount that needs to be deposited. For street-based sex workers in particular, they can become targets for thieves because they usually have their money on them. Now a lot of them will come and deposit their earnings at USHA each night – the cooperative stays open very late – and once they deposit their earnings they can walk back home much more safely.

We also have some cases where sex workers do not disclose their profession to their families. They will instead say that they are going to work on a construction site or some other labouring. A construction worker has a fixed amount of income per day so they keep that amount with them and deposit the extra in the savings account. They don’t have to give any explanation in the house – [if they are asked] ‘where did you get this money from?’ It gives the women a bit more independence.

We also provide loans at USHA. By far the number one reason people request loans is education for the children of sex workers. Sometimes with the help of loans they are able to pay for their children to get really very advanced education even some of them have become lawyers and doctors. Not many yet, but some of them. Others are doing higher education themselves – this simply wasn’t possible before.

By far the number one reason people request loans is education for the children of sex workers. Sometimes with the help of loans they are able to pay for their children to get really very advanced education even some of them have become lawyers and doctors.
Rita Roy

People also use loans for health reasons, if someone requires a good amount of money for treatment, for example. The urban sex workers, they are taking out loans and starting small businesses selling saris, in the rural areas many of them are buying land. Some of them have brought cows and chickens and then sell milk and eggs to get extra money. A very few are using loans to buy a small property, for example a flat, and then get the rent.

This is generally done by women who are a bit older and who cannot stay in sex work any longer. It becomes a little difficult to continue with their profession. In that case, this business becomes their source of income. You could say it’s a retirement plan.

I work as a sex worker in a brothel here in Sonagachi. I have been able to make a good amount of money and with loans from the cooperative I have bought a flat and I am able to take care of my parents. All of this is because of the cooperative, before I would not have been able to save money. I don’t have my own children but I paid for my brother’s son and daughter to go to school and they have both now become engineers.

Things are really changing for us now that sex workers can speak up and raise our voices. I have only worked since [the formation of Durbar] and I have never had any problems with the police, or with a client but I know that those who were working before used to have troubles. We have fought against social exclusion for over 20 years; we will not allow any new laws that will take this fight backwards.

In India, it is currently illegal to solicit the sale of sex in a public place and to organize commercial sex. An amendment to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, proposed a decade ago but never adopted, would also criminalize buying sex. Durbar actively opposes this move.