RIGHTS-INDIA: Sex Workers Assert Rights

Sujoy Dhar

CALCUTTA, Aug 23 1999 (IPS) - Mala Singh and Sadhana Mukherjee spent the prime of their youth pandering to male passions in the dark alleys of this eastern Indian city’s sleaze districts.

They took their share of police brutality, vicious pimps and and the social opprobium that goes with their profession – far removed from ideas such as legalised prostitution, workers rights and dignity of labour far removed.

But times are changing and the two are determined to transform negative social attitudes prevailing against their trade – often the only option available to poor, unskilled women in a capitalist and patriarchal society.

“In most discussions, prostitution and trafficking are deliberately clubbed together and the number of women and girls who are trafficked deliberatley exaggerated,” says Mala, 40.

“It is rarely acknowledged that for most sex workers, entering the sex industry is not a result of coercion or an act of desperation but a rational choice.”

According to Mala, who was invited to speak at the ‘International Conference on Trafficking ow Women,’ held in Geneva in June, prostitution is often sought to be banned in the name of checking trafficking and the forcible entry of minor girls into the profession.

“What is overlooked in this sensationalist and moralist approach is that sex workers are working women and men, who like many other people, happen to be engaged in a marginal, sexist, explotiative and low-status job.”

What gave Mala and Sadhana a chance to gain recognition for their profession and some semblance of internationally accepted standards, such as compulsory use of condoms and the right to say no, was the global menace of HIV.

“No condom no sex is our slogan in Calcutta and it has already lowered perceptibly the incidence of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STD),” says Sadhana.

As secretary of the Asia Pacific Sex Worker’s Association Sadhana was invited to speak on ‘prevention strategies’ at the ‘Action on AIDS in Asia Pacific Communities,’ programme at Sydney in May this year.

At the conference Sadhana stressed the importance of health consciousness among sex workers and drew from the experience of the ‘HIV/STD Intervention Programme’ begun in Calcutta’s red- light district of Sonagachi in 1992.

The Programme, hailed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a ‘best practice’ first gave the long- oppressed sex workers the consciousness that they were complete persons with emotional and material needs.

By 1996, Mala and Sadhana had set up the Durbar Mahila Samanayay Committee (DMSC) an organisation which now represents 40,000 sex workers in West Bengal state and leads a movement for legalisation of prostitution and extension of worker’s rights.

The DMSC taught its members to physically resist attempts to force unprotected sex on them and though quite a few sustained injuries in the process by 1998 condom use was as high as 90 percent compared to less than three percent in 1992.

Since 1996 Calcutta’s sex workers have had the benefit of a cooperative which doles out loans to members at low interest and helps aged sex workers with self-employment schemes.

But their most important endeavour is to gain legal recognition for prostituion – an issue on which opinion is still highly divided in this socially conservative country.

“They work with their bodies and hence they want workers’ rights,” says Mrinal Kanti Dutta, the present director of the HIV/STD Intervention Programme who has no hesitation saying he is himself the son of sex worker.

“If mainstream society denies prostitution workers’ rights on the grounds that it is harmful it would be sheer hypocrisy since workers in the liquor and tobacco trade, which are also harmful, are granted those rights,” Dutta said.

According to former director of the Programme, Dr. Samarjit Jana, since sex workers fufil and important social need prostitution must be seen as a profession.

“Under the patriarchal system there is always a need for sexual services outside the family and hence prostitution would always be there,” Jana said.

“If sex workers are armed with trade union rights they can

articulate their problems and avail of government schemes for themselves and their children bettter,” he said.

However, Tapati Bhowmik, coordinator of Sanlaap (Dialogue), an non-government organisation (NGO) working with the children of sex workers feels that it is unrealistic for so marginalised a group to make such demands.

“They do not have access to basics such as shelter, education and health care and it is unrealistic that a government which does not even acknowledge trafficking in girl children would agree to provide sex workers facilities like insurance.”

There is support for the proposal from veteran trade union leader and former federal home minister, Indrajit Gupta, whose Communist Party of India (CPI) forms part of the Left Front coalition ruling West Bengal state.

But the sex workers know that their best bet lies in transforming themselves and their trade by making them more responsible.

In May they took a major step in that direction by forming a self-regulatory board comprising sex workers and people from other walks especially to regulate the entry of young girls into the profession.

“Newcomers are now presented before the board and if we find someone being coerced or persuaded to engage in the profession as a minor we stop it,” Mala said.

In three of the 17 red light areas of Calcutta, Rambagan, Sethbagan and Tollygunge, child prostitution has been stopped despite personal risks from pimps and crime bosses.

“The three areas account for 1120 sex workers and it hurts the pimps and other people who make a living out of trafficking in minors,” Mala said.

Sadhana said she was well aware of the hurdles ahead. “Our strategy is to first strengthen the Asia-Pacific network and then launch the battle for workers rights and respectability for the profession.”

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RIGHTS-INDIA: Sex Workers Assert Rights

Sujoy Dhar

CALCUTTA, Aug 16 1999 (IPS) - Mala Singh and Sadhana Mukherjee spent the prime of their youth pandering to male passions in the dark alleys of this eastern Indian city’s sleaze districts.

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