Calcutta Sex Workers Unite Under the Co-operative Banner (1997)

This document has been made available in electronic
Format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
Dec., 1997
(Source: Co-op Dialogue, Vol.7, No.3, Sept-Dec.1997,
pp. 3-7)

Calcutta sex workers unite under the co-operative banner
By Allie Irvine*

Sex workers have always participated in Indian society, from its birth as a nation
organising resistance with Mahatma Gandhi, to raising money for flood victims of
Bangladesh in 1995.

But the world's oldest profession remains one of the least respected; and those who
practice it on streets across the globe find themselves powerless, their lives fraught
with insecurity.

Sex workers in Calcutta have forged a weapon against oppression  a co-operative run by
and for prostitutes.  Registered in June 1995, Usha Co-operative Multi-purpose Stores is
the first of its kind on the Asia sub-continent, and maybe even the world.

"These women are at the bottom of a power structure that includes landlords, `madams',
pimps, `babus' and the `mafia' all fighting for control," said Dr. Smarajit Jana of the
All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health. The co-operative was born out of the
success of Jana's STD/HIV Intervention Programme in Sonagachi, a three-point project
designed to arrest the spread of disease by providing health services and condoms, and
educating sex workers. Sonagachi is one of the oldest and largest red light districts in
Calcutta.  Hawkers, revellers, bicycles, scooters, rickshaws and sex workers compete with
each other for space along the narrow streets.

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 women work in over 370 brothels in Sonagachi alone, and
another 1,500 drift in and out of the area.  They range in age from 13 to 45, but 30 per
cent are under the age of 30.  The sex workers rely on the 20,000 men who visit this area
for their daily bread. It is home to thousands of sex workers, most of whom turned to the
sex trade in the face of grinding poverty.

A 1991 study of India showed that most sex workers come from schedule caste, over 70 per
cent are illiterate and most have children and families to support.

Recognising women's social and economic vulnerability, the project was welcomed by sex
workers because it respected human dignity and valued the their basic human rights and

As daily workers in a free market environment, the women's time is valued in monetary
terms.  Time off for illness means less food for their children.  Sex workers also face
occupational hazards, like violence and disease, which hurt her ability to earn.  These
women are vulnerable to harassment by dons, pimps and police looking for bribes and
protection money.

Thousands of women in Calcutta work in brothels that are often cramped and filthy  rooms
separated by only a curtain. 

Pimps and madams watch over her shoulder, pocketing a quarter to half a woman's earning
in addition to the rent they pay for their small space.

Many more work out of their homes in red light districts of the city.  These sex workers
have babus, or men who share permanent relations and often children with her.  In a world
of intense competition, isolation and social rejection, babus often offer love and
security that sex workers crave.  

A women's feelings of insecurity are used to her economic and emotional detriment by
manipulative men in search of money. Only 25.7 per cent of babus are illiterate, but
almost 46 per cent earned less than 1,000 Rupees weekly.  Only 1.5 per cent of babus used
condoms regularly. Sex workers also require economic security.  Frequent raids by police
and a negative social stigma are compounded by exploitation by madams, pimps and
moneylenders. In times of financial need, women are forced to take high interest loans
from money lenders at rates sometimes as high as 1,000 per cent.  Lack of education and
self-confidence leaves them exposed to fraud. 

The legislation drafted to regulate the sex trade in India, the Prevention of Immoral
Traffic Act, aimed at controlling the flow of new girls into prostitution. 

Sex workers say the law simply gives police the right to do harass them unjustly.

Police abuse laws against trafficking minors by arresting the innocent children of the
sex workers, then demand money for their release.  Madams pay-off the police the woman
must work off the debt.

Minister of Food and Civil Supplies, Krishna Sahi said that the greatest number of
atrocities against prostitutes are committed by the police. Amod Kanth, a veteran police
officer, confirmed that more than 75 per cent of the cases registered under the ITPA were
against women.  Instead of protecting women, the law victimises them. 

In December 1995, a sex worker in Calcutta solicited a customer on the road for 50
Rupees.  When they returned to her room, she requested that he use a condom.  He refused
and went to the police station where he reported her. The police informed her that she
had to comply with her customer's dictate as he had paid her 50 Rupees, and fined her an
additional 60 Rupees (which they pocketed).

Many women have scars inflicted by an angry or drunken client, or as punishment from a
pimp.  One woman recalled how a girl who left her pimp to work independently had acid
thrown in her face.

In the crowded red light district of Sonagachi, prostitution is a competitive business. 
Although they work in close association with each other, friendships between the women
can be superficial.

Rejected by their natal families, scorned by their community, persecuted by authorities,
these women feel like social outcasts. 

A group of five women smiled and talked amongst each other around the a circle in a
spacious, uncluttered office near Calcutta University.  Their faces clean and scrubbed,
their soft hair pulled back, and dressed in pink, yellow and blue saris, they look like
every day women.

They are board members of Usha Co-operative Multipurpose Stores.  All are active
participants of the Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a lobby and support group formed as a
precursor to the co-operative.

These women see their committee and the co-operative as a forum to unite all sex workers
on common issues facing their daily lives. "Before I joined the co-operative, I felt like
no one would care if I lived or died," said Putul Singh, who is vice-president.

Competition among sex workers, their mobility and lack of education complicate the
working of the co-operative.  The idea of collective effort had to be germinated amongst
the sex workers and co-operative management.

Collective social responsibility started with Jana's intervention program.  "One of the
main objectives of our program was to increase women's power to negotiate with their
clients," he said.  

There is strength in numbers, so Jana's focus shifted to empowering sex workers within
their community and within society using the principles of respect, reliance and
recognition. Soon, Jana and his team found the project was an effective agent of social

To reach the women, the project managers used an innovative approach to inform sex
workers about the threat of disease and the need for condoms.  Educators were recruited
from among the sex workers in the hopes women would respond better to their peers.  The
project started with 12, but it has grown to over 65 in Sonagachi alone.

The peer educators were trained for six weeks about sexually transmitted diseases.  The
training they received whetted their appetite for more education, prompting the project
to offer literacy training.  They study English, Hindi and Bengali  according to their
education level   one hour each day the whole week.

Recruiting sex workers to educate other women in their trade helped to create a sense of
trust in the program and its leadership.  The needs of the community were taken into
consideration and the women consulted before efforts were initiated.  Democracy in the
process was vital and sex workers were included in all spheres.

Field work brings peer educators into contact with 40 to 50 sex workers a day, and from
10 to 15 madams.  Using pictures and videos, the educators can overcome the illiteracy
barrier to promote their safe sex message. Today, the peer educators come to work in a
green uniform jacket complete with a photo nametag. "I feel like I have respect.  People
listen to me, and my children know that I have a real job," said one proud educator from
Chetla. They say they have gained a sense of self-respect, dignity and a social identity.
 Their newly acquired self-esteem, education and a steady income have allowed these women
to leave their former profession.

Women benefit from the program's holistic approach - it reaches out to both sex workers
and their families. Health services are available to sex workers and their families, an
immunisation program is offered for their children, and participants can join in cultural
programmes and other social/educational activities.  The project also offers sex workers
information and education on their rights to combat exploitation at the hands of police
and dons.

Unlike many other social movements in India, the project's success was not dependent on
one charismatic leader.  Its leadership and identity belong to the sex workers
themselves.  Both the MSC and the co-operative were formed by the women with the support
of the project team. An Evaluation Report of the Sonagachi Project in March 1996 stated
that it was, "perhaps one of the best interventions for sex workers in the world.  It
exists and conducts its interventions with an enthusiasm and an intensity that is
remarkable.  Effects not measured in the evaluation of the project but related to the
expanded activities, such as self-esteem of the women in Sonagachi and increased
empowerment are becoming apparent and should be followed." They concluded that the peer
educators are the reason for its success.  Effective management and community involvement
make the project a good working model across for use across West Bengal, read the report.

A special correspondent for Frontline, Dr. Jaya Shreedhar, commented in November 1995
about the peer educators, "I chanced to meet some of the most intelligent and aggressive
self-respecting women here  it was inspiring."

Social workers, religious preachers and the State have all tried to abolish the sex trade
in vain.  Laws and sermons only serve to strengthen the image of sex workers as `whores,'
isolating and humiliating them, and consolidating the power of landlords, pimps and money

Recognition of the women's profession and the absence of a mandate to `convert' them
inspired an atmosphere of faith and reciprocity.  Project leadership and volunteers
expressed a genuine interest in the well-being of the women.  Learning about their
occupational rights and providing a forum to assert them helped strengthen their

A degree of professionalism has crept into the lives and attitudes of these sex workers
and their approach has demonstrated a sense of social responsibility.  Uniting under the
banner of a co-operative has given these women the will to resist oppression and
exploitation both individually and in an organised manner.  It has become their network
for solidarity.

The Mahila Samanwaya Committee and Usha Co-operative Multipurpose Stores made history a
second time when they played host to over 3,000 delegates from across the country
attending India's first national convention of sex workers held November 14 to 16, 1997
in Calcutta. Their demands for a trade union and the legalisation of prostitution
received vocal support from Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta and West Bengal Health
Minister Partha De, who both addressed the conference.

The conference was a follow-up to a resolution passed by MSC at their first state
conference at University Institute Hall in Calcutta on April 29, 1996 demanding the IPTA
be repealed in favour of legalisation and self-regulation by an autonomous body.  The
proposed board would regulate entry of sex workers into the trade, provide guidelines for
the trade and provide welfare measures for sex workers and their families.

Negotiations between the MSC and prominent trade unions like the AITUC, CITU and the
Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Government Employees Unions and women's organisations have
already begun laying the ground work. Sex workers believe that a trade union is an urgent
necessity to help combat the oppressive social forces they encounter.

Group leaders told a correspondent for The Hindustan Times that they are resisting an
alliance with any political party in their fight to bring sex work under the purview of
labour law.

The political strength shown by these sex workers grew out of the lessons they learned in
forming their co-operative. Set up in February 1995, the society was finally registered
in June 1995 with 19 members and a capital of 7,000 Rupees under the West Bengal
Co-operative Societies Act, 1983. It is controlled by a board of directors composed of
six people.

Government co-operative officials weren't necessarily thrilled with the idea of
recognising the co-operative.  The law requires a person be of "good moral character" to
be a member of a co-operative, and there was a question whether prostitutes met this
qualification.  The interpretation was that a person must not be convicted of an offence.

At first, the department officials suggested the women call themselves a co-operative of 
housewives, which they steadfastly refused to do.  For them, recognition of their trade
was important.

After six months, then-State Co-operative Minister Saral Dev intervened to make his
ministry the first government body in the country to recognise and register a
co-operative run by and for sex workers.  The registration came with a loan of 100,000
Rupees and a decision to allow the co-operative to start functioning with a minimum
deposit instead of the mandatory registration fee. A.C. Kol, recently retired Secretary
of Co-operation in West Bengal, explained that the government has placed emphasis on
fostering co-operatives amongst low income people. helped Usha Multipurpose Co-op Stores
by reimbursing the membership fee of 50 Rupees, giving the co-operative seed money.

Sex workers say the co-operative can provide more benefits to their community.  Like all
women, they aspire for their children to be educated in a conducive environment. 
Children of sex workers often face awkward questions about their parentage when
registering for regular schools. Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Stores is exploring the
possibilities of starting a creche and a school for the children of sex workers.

Forming a co-op has given these women a sense of financial security, a base from which
they can reconstruct their own status in society.  Each member must deposit 100 Rupees
every month.  As a credit co-operative, it can give loans up to 3,000 Rupees to members
and non-members at variable terms, hold deposits and disburse profits.

The co-operative is experimenting with other income-generating ventures.  It manages a
condom-selling project which provides employment to aging members. Condoms are purchased
in bulk and sold by former sex workers, called `Basanti Sena,' for a profit. They hope to
eventually open a consumer co-operative store to sell daily commodities. The advent of a
co-operative on the exploitative money lenders' turf was perceived as a direct threat. 
Some of the project staff belonged to the racket and launched a protest. They failed to
influence the majority of sex workers who welcomed a new forum for economic solidarity.
The Sonagachi Project of the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health has lent a
helping hand to the co-operative by offering advice, training, and providing them a venue
where they can meet.

Because their work is dependent on their bodies, the sex workers are also concerned about
their security as they age. The co-operative has helped them develop alternative
employment for older women and those who want out. 

Before forming the co-operative, one woman said through a translator, other people had
control over her money. "Now I can save and borrow for myself," she said. In April 1997,
the co-operative received permission to expand to 15 other red light districts in
Calcutta and Howrah.  Its member of 125 doubled within a month, today standing at over

Co-ops have always been a tool of the poor.  While Usha Co-operative Multipurpose Stores
is small, its advent among the most disenfranchised women in Indian society proves
co-operatives can provide security and opportunity to the socially outcast - without

Ms. Allie Irvine works with the ICA Regional Office for Asia and
the Pacific as intern deputed by the Canadian Co-operative Association.