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How 10,000 Sex Workers Are Living In Despicable Conditions In Kolkata’s Sonagachi

Posted on September 15, 2014 in Sex Work, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Heenali Patel

The muggy midday heat pervades everything, mixing with the stench of car fumes and summer-fatigued bodies. I venture into a web of dusty alleyways, pock-marked with holes, and rickshaw-wallahs taking refuge in the shade of ramshackle buildings. The occasional honk of a horn is the only sound that breaks the murmuring quiet that has settled over this sleepy pocket of town. Beside the gateway to an abandoned rubbish pit, a young woman rocks a baby on her knees. As she sees me approach, she pulls her child closer, arching her back over to protect him. I turn the corner, just in time to spy a small veiled figure slip from one doorway and into another. Here, bodies never seem to venture far from the shadows, and faces remain half-hidden from unwanted eyes.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

It is little wonder that Sonagachi in Kolkata has an oppressive air hanging over it. Home to one of the largest red light districts in Asia, the area accommodates an innumerable cohort of at least 10,000 sex workers in a dizzying maze of shoebox rooms and street-side stalls. Even less documented are their children, lovers, babu partners, kotha malkeen madams, pimps and traffickers. These women occupy a murky world, far removed from the main streets of Kolkata. A lack of attention from the local and national governments has exacerbated their vulnerability, making them prime targets for abuse from local gangsters and police authorities.

Prostitution laws in India deem exchanging sex for money as legal, but classify brothel-based activities and trafficking as illicit. It is unlawful for a sex worker to solicit customers publicly and to live off the earnings of sex work. This activity is punishable by up to six months imprisonment and/or a sizeable fine. Despite this, there are an estimated three million prostitutes in India according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development. For all its legal ambiguity, commercial sex work remains unregulated, with even fewer sources of hard data monitoring the incidence of forced labour. Regulatory boards set up within Sonagachi itself claim that only 38 underage girls and 23 ‘unwilling women’ entered the sex trade in Kolkata in 2012. International bodies like UNICEF however, stipulate that India is home to half of the world’s one million children who enter the sex trade each year, with Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai listed as the main centres for prostitution.

One need not wander far into the red light district to see that India’s current policies on sex work and trafficking are inadequate and ineffective. Punishments are meted out to sex workers only, with no laws seeking to penalise their clients or the individuals who manage and extort them. I met Suvitha, a sex worker who has been living in Sonagachi for over twenty years, in a tiny room covered in flaky blue paint, attached to a courtyard complex.


“We have no protections if the police catch us. Nobody wants to help us when we get into trouble.” She sits cross-legged on the dusty floor, occasionally running her fingers through the numerous scars that run along her arms. “Usually when people find out what I do, they want nothing to do with me or my daughter.”

In Bengali, the verb to enter sex work, ‘nama’, is also used to describe falling or descending. The social stigma attached to prostitution is so great that sex workers have been prevented from accessing public sector services, and have children who are denied entry to school.

“When the school found out where my daughter lived, the children bullied her. The school told her that she could not go back there.”

The only way to improve the lot of sex workers is to first bring about a change in the social attitudes that confine them. Any form of development, whether monitoring and controlling the spread of HIV, or ensuring that sex workers’ children receive a formal education, must be preceded by widespread recognition of their social, emotional and material needs. Known internationally as one of the largest sex worker co-operatives in India, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee has been campaigning to gain such rights for over two decades. Durbar programme director Bharati Dey, a former sex worker, summarises the situation for most workers in Sonagachi.

“Any criminalisation of sex work reinforces harmful stigmas and creates a black market where child prostitution and trafficking thrive. You have local goons and corrupt police extorting money, beating us and forcing us into unprotected sex.”

The DMSC runs its campaigns from the Sonagachi district itself, with initiatives that spread across West Bengal, including a STD/ HIV Intervention Programme that began in the 1990’s. The organisation claims to have increased condom usage from 2.7% in 1992 to 91% in 2010, and to have stabilised HIV prevalence to 5.2%. The statistics may be closer to a desired eventuality than the present reality. As the 1997 Manifesto of The First National Conference of Sex Workers claims, ‘even when aware of the necessity of using condoms to prevent disease, an individual may be compelled to jeopardise her health for fear of losing her clients, or may not be in a position to negotiate safer sex under exploitative madams or pimps.’

DMSC Research officer Dr. Protim Ray explains how the lack of laws targeting clients and pimps prevents the organisation from instating change through any other medium other than the sex workers themselves. His latest initiative to treat HIV-positive workers focuses on the use of technology to reach more workers.

“Our research is on how to increase adherence to anti-retro-viral treatment for HIV positive individuals. This is being done by sending messages to them on their mobile phones. They get messages at specified times to remind them to take their medicines.”

When I ask if the project is proving to be effective, his answer is measured but vague. “We have done a baseline. We need to do more follow ups to come to a conclusion. But we feel in the very first follow-up that there has been good feedback.”

A second project just initiated by DMSC surrounds the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Although there have so far been no cases of the disease spreading to India, health supervisors in Sonagachi are wary of the high number of West African customers that frequent the area, and the potential risks that this may entail. Last week, DMSC chief advisor Dr. Smarajit Jana began a series of sessions for community members on the symptoms of Ebola. His advice for workers to refuse sex to all West African clients, however, may fall on deaf ears in an industry where rape, coercion and exploitation are rife.

Social exclusion of sex workers is perpetuated by a refusal of the government and society to regulate other individuals that operate in the red light districts. Whilst organisations like the DMSC have achieved better awareness of sex worker rights and social programmes for betterment, the lack of regulations on clients and pimps in the industry undermines their good intentions. As I make my final visit to Sonagachi, I meet a six year old boy called Adith, quietly drawing in a run-down street hovel with a prized set of colouring pencils. He proudly shows me his picture, a rendering of the Indian flag. “I love my country,” he says to me by way of explanation. “I love making pictures of it.”

One can only hope that India will start to give Adith a good reason to continue doing so.