Sonagachi Model

Unionisation of Sex-Workers

Smarajit Jana

Unlike COVID-19 pandemic and its intervention approaches which constricted social and political spaces for people in general and poor and marginalised in particular; the pandemic of HIV/AIDS had a different .impact. The HIV/AIDS Pandemic which started in late eighties could open up a window of opportunity for the marginalised communities with special focus to sex workers, transgender [TG] and gay communities across the world. Sex workers came into the limelight as they were considered as 'core group transmitters' who occupy an important position in disease transmission dynamics and from the standpoint of epidemic control program. The Union Government of India took initiative to start HIV prevention programme focusing sex workers across all major cities as early as 1991.As part of this national strategy, a HIV Intervention programme was launched in one of the largest red-light districts in city Kolkata named Sonagachi. However the leadership of this intervention programme in Kolkata didn't follow the usual approaches i.e. to copy and paste the strategies of first world countries. On the other hand the leadership in Kolkata tried out a unique framework of intervention; to train sex worker as health worker with a nomenclature as 'peer educator'. 'Peer educators' were entrusted to carry out health awareness campaign in the brothel as well as they played the role to deliver goods and services to sex workers. Their job was to meet sex workers living in the brothels in regular intervals and provide information to them on HIV/ AIDS and distribute condoms free of cost and encourage them to get examined by the medical doctors posted in the makeshift health clinics established in the heart of the red light districts. However, sooner the implementers of the Sonagachi project realised that the sex workers are unlikely to succeed in enforcing condom use by their clients, so long, they are not enabled and empowered to effectively negotiate with their clients for safer sex. For all practical reasons clients hold the key in the negotiating process. He is a male; who is egoist and believed to be'more powerful in contrast to female counterpart' in our society, he holds the economic power to buy sex services. Moreover it's a buyer's market and clients dictate almost each and every terms and condition of buying and selling sex services. In addition to that the ITPA [Immoral Traffic Prevention Act] which regulate sex work in the country indirectly criminalise sex workers. Besides society in general consider sex workers are bad or 'fallen women'. All these factors in combine absolves her power and dignity to live and work like any other citizens of this country. This phenomena reduces her capability to negotiate effectively with other stakeholders in the sex trade including her clients. Keeping this perspective in mind the health intervention team of Sonagachi took, took a distinctly different approach and inculcated a policy to empower sex workers both at individual, community as well as at societal level. The empowering strategy thus adopted, could be broadly divided into three major components namely, Community Mobilisation, Creating Enabling Environment and Building Ownership of the sex workers over the process and product of the HIV intervention programme. All these components are not just discrete elements of intervention programme but part of a cohesive strategy which complement each other within a broad framework of intervention which was coined as community led structural intervention [CLSI].

Community Mobilisation is relatively a simple approach to help collectivise sex workers who can come close and interact with each other, who otherwise live and operate in a very competitive environment. This has helped community members to voice their issues and challenges and in the process they started regaining their self-esteem and confidence. Slowly but steadily the inspired community could build their own collective, but more importantly they could organise their thought process and developed their own agenda.Sex workers started questioning socially imposed stigma attached to sex and sex work. They argued that they should not be treated differently and badly as because they are selling sex services. Sex workers claimed that they are not doing anything wrong. They questioned, why selling pleasure to clients would be adjudged as a sin?Their view was that the sex services are no different from many other services which are bought and sold in the market like education or financial services and similar others. They were very right in proclaiming that they are not selling their bodies, but use different body parts to produce sex services just like a taxi driver or a bank officer produces services using their hands, eyes and or brains. The process of collectivisation changed the body language of sex workers.Hitherto who were 'invisible and voiceless'to mainstream society became apparent.The sex workers' collective came into existence in Kolkata by 1995 which got registered as Durbar Mahila Swamanaya Committee [DMSC]. It appears that the society can't close their eyes anymore and pushed them to live in the margins of the society. And soon the sex workers collective rallied in the streets of Kolkata pressing their issues and demands. It is true that HIV epidemic opens up a space for this community to come close but they got collectivised based on the common threats experienced by almost all sex workers, which are police harassment and all kinds of exploitative practices of the local thugs who operate with tacit support of the police and the local politicians.

DMSC organised first National Conference of Sex Workers at the Salt Lake stadium in November 1997.The most encouraging support they received from the then Hon'ble Home Minister of the country, who flew to Kolkata to attend the conference of sex workers after receiving an invitation through an e-mail invitation. In his speech he expressed his full support to sex workers with no ambiguous term and inspired them by saying that he would lend all kinds of support whenever necessary to sex workers' collective. It is most interesting to note that when a major section of Marxist leaders and members of different left parties in the country took the side of religious and evangelist's viewpoints to dismiss the workers' rights of sex worker, the veteran CPI leader and the Union Minister Mr.Indrajit Gupta made a huge difference. Perhaps his lifelong experience in dealing with the working masses enriched his understanding unlike many other 'Communist Babus' of this country. Sex workers received wholehearted support from the then Sports Minister of the State of West Bengal, Mr.SubhasChakraborty, who offered salt lake stadium under his jurisdiction followed by a dinner hosted by him for the participants of the conference coming from different states of the country.

The other important element of the empowering strategy is the creation of an enabling environment. It calls for building a conducive environment for the marginalised communities e.g. sex workers, TG,Gay population and alike. Undoubtedly the HIV pandemic provided a social space for the sex workers community to realise basic human rights related issues like formation of their own collectives, freedom of expression and rights to represent in relevant policy making bodies among others. This was not an easy task altogether. In 1997 numbers of women groups in the country left no stone unturned to stop the National Conference of Sex Workers to happen, they could mobilise the Vice President of India in addition to press and Media to prevent 'immoral sex workers' to have their own conference. This is not an isolated incident.During the year 2015, when the Global Network of Sex Workers in protest to US Government's stand as not to issue Visa to sex workers to attend the international conference on HIV/AIDS scheduled to be held in California, decided to boycott the conference and planned to organise parallel international conference in Kolkata. Thanks to DMSC and its organising capability to hold a conference of this kind, which was attended by fifteen thousand sex workers representing 47 countries across the globe. However, Kolkata based few women's groups marched towards the venue with poster and placards to stop the conference. For them sex workers' rights to organise their conference was unacceptable.

To create an enabling environment for the sex workers community; it is important to identify and qualify social and structural barriers and factors operating behind those.The major underlying factors as identified are social belief and practices around sex, sexual pleasure and practices which are shrouded under a veil of silence and never been questioned. There are innumerable myths, dogma created and perpetuated by the mainstream society around sex and sex workers pivoting around ignorance, obscurantism, in addition to fear and apprehension. It is the moral judgmental stand [primarily of the middle class] towards sex and sex workers which gets reflected in their attitude and practices. As a result of which people in general look down upon sex workers and their occupation is treated with hatred.

Side by side numbers of structural barriers were created by the governmental bodies through articulation of Government policies and laws which regulate sex work in the country.Attempt was made to understand implication of all types of barriers as well as to address those, sex work and sex worker per se is not illegal in India but almost all activities required to sell sex services are made illegal through IPTAct, as for example soliciting of clients, brothel keeping, living on the earnings of sex worker is a criminal offence. Giving rent to sex worker can draw punitive measures to house owner and so on so forth. Though it has been clarified through several judgments handed over by the hon'ble justices at the High Court and the Supreme Court, both police and many educated individuals questioned the legality of sex work.On July 2012 the Supreme Court stated that ''...the state should create conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with the provision of the article 21 of the constitution''. Not only that, the Supreme Court constituted a committee with the inclusion of sex workers' representatives from DMSC and USHA Cooperative [the sex workers' co-operative] and entrust them to deal with major issues pertaining to sex work and workers which includes sex workers' rights to live with dignity. Few weeks back while handing over the judgment in connection to forced incarceration of a sex worker, honourable judge of the Bombay High Court made it clear that'it is women's right to choose their own vocation and one can't be forced for rehabilitation against their will'.

Even though no major changes have taken place in connection to existing laws in the country, things are changing slowly but perceptibly which are reflected in the attitudes of the judges and in their interpretation of laws and policies related to sex work and workers. Based on decade long advocacy and lobbying by the sex workers' collective in the parliament and in the policy making bodies of the governments had made difference. The ministry of women and child welfare wanted to revise certain clauses of ITPA which could have adversely impacting the life and occupation of sex workers. However, combination of advocacy and activism by the sex workers collective could stall it. Since 1997 DMSC inspired other sex workers' collectives to bring them under one umbrella as national level network of sex workers which came into existence by 2003.Under the banner of National Network of Sex Workers, a huge procession was held in Delhi which was primarily steered by DMSC, gave a call of 'Parliament March' to stop the bill passed in the parliament during 2006. After decade long interaction and advocacy with the National Human Rights Commission[NHRC], finally an advisory articulated from their end on the rights of women; it recognised sex workers under the informal labour sector. These are few successful examples to show how enabling environment was created of and by the sex workers' collectives in the country. In the recent past, DMSC appealed to the Supreme Court of India seeking support for the sex workers who are severely affected by the strictest lock down, promulgated by the government to address COVID pandemic. The informed judges came up swiftly directing the governments to provide dry ration and cash money to sex workers without the clauses of verification of papers or documents; as the judges knew how difficult for them to access or possess citizenship or identity related documents. This component of intervention effectively create social and political spaces for the community members and in turn, the community collective [which came up as the outcome of community mobilisation strategy] has claimed and occupied those spaces. Making best use of these spaces, the empowered community now can negotiate more effectively with other societal members including social and political institutions with an objective to move out from the margins of the society. No doubt it could be a useful strategy to address marginalisation of any communities whatsoever.

The third component of this empowering strategy is the establishment of the ownership of the community. Peer workers who were primarily service provider in HIV programme help identifying many other issues beyond HIV like issues of stigma and social injustice meted out to them, education for their children, access to formal financial services and so on so forth. The peer workers attached in the early stage of the HIV intervention programme took the leadership and slowly transformed them into 'agent of social change'. The leadership developed from among the community members could successfully identified various social and structural barriers and the process to address those; so that individuals can act or perform like any other citizen of the country.Slowly peers and members of sex workers community who has the potential to lead were inducted in policy making bodies of the HIV intervention program. Sex workers started changing their role from just beneficiaries to partner of the program. Side by side the leadership of health intervention programme of Sonagachi took initiative to articulate communities'new 'role' and 'responsibilities' in the programme development and monitoring of the programme. The programme management structure was modified and overhauled at points to reposition community's leadership in all decision making process. The community collective slowly took the driver's seat and started enjoying their newly invented 'role model' as implementer and 'gatekeeper' of the programme. The Sonagachi HIV intervention programme which was initiated by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health [AIIH&PH], in 1992 created this unique framework of intervention [which was named CLSI].The outcome of which is the DMSC which came into existence by 1995.As part of CLSI approaches, the ownership and management of the programme was handed over to DMSC by 1999 which now represent voices of sixty thousand sex workers in the state of West Bengal.

Since then the sex workers' collective has been running HIV intervention programme in Sonagachi and twenty other red light areas in the state of West Bengal. In addition to that, it has included many health intervention activities beyond HIV/AIDS e.g. mother and child health programme, cancer screening, vaccination of the new born among others. Within a span of two years of time they could expand HIV intervention programme covering more than twenty five thousand sex workers throughout the state of West Bengal. Keeping in view the perceived needs of the community, DMSC incorporated other development initiatives in addition to health intervention programme namely Education, Micro Finance, Sports, among others. They also created a separate publication and a research wing of its own. DMSC succeeded in creating a cultural platform with renewed inspiration, involving children of sex workers and members from transgender communities. Slowly but steadily a vertical HIV Intervention programme took the shape of a comprehensive development programme of and by the sex workers community.

Few other decisions taken in the initial phases of development has made tremendous boost to collectivisation .One such decision was to carve a new social identity for women who are in sex work.Sex workers took a decision to change their social identity from prostitute to sex worker.

Combination of all these activities has helped community member to challenge the existing image of sex workers created and perpetrated by the mainstream media and academia and the society at large. They decided to carve out their new identity as 'sex worker' as opposed to 'prostitute'; which is demeaning to their identity and undermine their social status. Carving out a new social identity as sex worker has made a significant change in their body politic otherwise used to live in a state of hopelessness. The other very important activity which the leadership of DMSC has undertaken is the development of economic wing through registering their co-operative society to ensure economic security of the sex workers. Economic insecurity coupled with extortionate money lending practices was the usual norms in sex work settings. It has always been the part of the lives of sex workers before they could develop their own co-op society. They could not save their earnings and it was impossible for many of them to escape the debt traps. In August 1995, they could persuade the Government of West Bengal to remove certain clauses from the Co-operative Law so that they could register their co-operative society as a co-operative of 'sex workers' only. Initially the department of co-operative society refused to register a sex workers' co-operative on the ground that one have to have good moral character to register a co-operative society. The registration of the Co-operative marks an important step in the sex workers' movement in getting recognition that sex work is a 'valid occupation'. This has certainly bolstered their campaign to establish sex workers' right to self-determination.

The Pass Book of USHA has helped to procure Voter Card, Aadhaar Card, Passport etc. and in turn has helped establishing their citizenship which was previously inaccessible to individual sex workers. As the Pass Book of USHA has been recognised as proof of residence by various Government Departments, sex workers now could avail goods and services as part of various development schemes and programmes run by state or central governments.

The other important and strategic programme of DMSC is their anti-trafficking programme. Through this programme, sex workers' collective not only succeeded in curbing trafficking incidents in sex work at the same time it has helped to distinguish between sex work and trafficking which are often conflated; however, sex work is not a moral condition but a livelihood option to a section of women on the other hand trafficking is a criminal offence which need to be addressed under the laws and policies of the country. The leadership of DMSC sees sex work as a contractual service, negotiated between two consenting adults. The organisation is against any force exercised on sex workers, be it by clients, brothel keepers, room owners, pimps, local goons, the police or traffickers. Following their principal objective to dissociate sex work from all criminal associations, DMSC entered into the arena of anti-trafficking activities, and by 2000 DMSC initiated anti-trafficking programmes through constituting Self-Regulatory Board [SRB] in a couple of red-light districts in Kolkata. The Board prevents entry of minors and trafficked women in the sex trade in addition to other exploitative practices within the sex trade. .Anti-trafficking programme steered through SRB proved to be one of the best anti-trafficking programmes at the sex work site which has been endorsed by the panel constituted by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of India. Over the years, DMSC has succeeded in repositioning sex workers' rights as an agenda through all varied kinds of development activities.

Sex workers are part of a vast unorganised labour sector in India. Among the sex workers, some are self-employed, others do work under madam with whom she shares her income. Like all other unorganised labour belonging to different occupation there is no job contract, no fixed working hours, no minimum wage, and they are not brought under any social security framework. Neither they could claim accident benefit or any sort of compensation for occupational diseases and injuries out of sex work. On the other hand they are seen as bad and fallen women, it is not just sex workers but their children are stigmatised and are often discriminated in schools and in other arenas for the very reason that her mother is in sex work which is demeaning in the eyes of the society. Societal attitude is championed by host of ideologues and organisations to their best advantages known to them.

Since last five years DMSC succeeded in building broader alliances with various unorganized labour sectors like domestic workers, farmers, fisher women and others. DMSC has played an active role in developing state level forum of unorganised working women named as Karmajibi Mahila Parishad[KMP] which represent 17 occupational groups and voices of around one hundred thousand unorganised workers in the state of West Bengal. The forum is headed by joint conveners and one of them is a sex worker from DMSC; shows not only social acceptance of sex workers rather their leadership in the labour movement.

Building Self- Esteem and dignity of the community members is a prerequisite to initiate a process of development. Carving new social identity has played a significant role in empowering sex workers community, who could be seen to lead various social movements beyond their community. The importance of collectivisation and building of self-organisation with and by the community members played a crucial role in sex worker's movement. Development of effective strategy, keeping in mind the national and global perspective is a key to future growth and development of this movement. Addressing structural barriers through the use of collective action couldn't be over-emphasised. Creation of social and political spaces appears to have played an important role. Creating forum/ alliances with different sections of societal members/ institutions/ unorganised labour sector/ trade unions as well as engaging with ongoing social or labour movement could be considered as an important strategy to mainstream the agenda of sex workers' rights. Efforts to influence laws and policies through partnering with other organisations/forums rather than initiating of its own; appears a sensible strategy for change.

The implementers of a peer-based HIV prevention programme among brothel based female sex workers in Kolkata, who first recognised that sex workers' inability to enforce safer sex is linked to her social and legal position, which needs to be changed through development of appropriate strategy is now a history. To address sex workers' vulnerability they introduced a strategy to empower sex workers through a process of collectivistion. The 'collective bargaining power' of the sex worker tilted the power balance within the sex trade and outside, which brought success in prevention programme. Condom use rate gone up from 3% to 95% and HIV brought under control and this model is commonly cited as the most successful model in HIV intervention programme called Sonagachi model of intervention and the guiding principles are replicated all across the world. The long term impact of this approaches and strategies of interventions appears mind boggling which requires larger discourses and deeper attention.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020