Even a few decades ago flower sell-ers walking down the narrow bylanes of Sonagachi in the fading light of the afternoon, hawking fresh strands of chamelis, marked the beginning of the “working day” of the hundreds of prostitutes in Kolkata’s most famous red-light area. These days the chameli sellers are gone but not much else seems to have changed in Sonagachi. The walls of the century-old houses are covered with political slogans. The Minerva Theater nearby, established in 1873, looks like it has never been painted since then. But change is coming to the twisting alleyways of Sonagachi. And the harbingers of change are the prostitutes themselves.

As uniformed schoolgirls dart between bicyclists and honking taxis, a prostitute hands out safe-sex leaflets to passersby, while another woman chants, “Jounkarmi-ra AIDS thekachhey, Rastar meye-ra poth dekhachhey. (Sex workers are stopping AIDS. The women of the street are showing the way.)” They are among India’s newest shock troops in the fight against spiraling HIV infection rates. Prostitutes here are insisting on being called sex workers, and their growing role as anti-AIDS activists has moved the debate that swirls around them beyond condoms and safe sex.

“There is no wizardry in distributing condoms,” says Mrinal Kanti Dutta, who runs Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a self-help group run by sex workers since 1995. “To combat malaria you can give out mosquito nets. But you also need to drain the ponds. What you need here is social and political empowerment.”


While “social and political empowerment” might sound harmless, they have caused quite a stir in governmental and advocate circles in India. Prostitutes taking charge of their own affairs have raised quite a few eyebrows. “We have had numerous surveys done on us, we’ve had movies like Amar Prem and novels but there has been nothing in it for us,” says Dutta, who grew up in the brothels of Sonagachi. Even as his mother worked as a prostitute, Dutta went to school, and became one of the first of the neighborhood kids to graduate. He has been with DMSC since its inception.

In 1986 Tiklibai became one of the first prostitutes in Sonagachi to test positive for HIV. In 1992 the WHO took an interest in the area and helped launch a three-month pilot project to test the prevalence of HIV among sex workers under the leadership of Smarajit Jana. Jana knew that the women of the area had little faith in outsiders and decided to launch a peer outreach program with the women in the area, which eventually developed into DMSC.

Now DMSC is housed in a typical North Kolkata building, the rooms surrounding a courtyard inside. On a warm spring morning, the phones ring incessantly as women walk in and out of the building filling timesheets and fielding calls. Outside, in the sunlit courtyard, ringed with potted dahlias, a dozen men and women, some of them sex workers, some the children of sex workers, practice a dance number to Bhupen Hazarika’s famous song “Ganga.” The dance master nudges a young woman not making the wave motion with suitable enthusiasm.

For Dutta, everything from the street outreach to the dance rehearsals is all part of what he calls the three pillars of his project “Respect, Reliance, and Recognition.” The missing R is the one that has been most often associated with prostitutes till now—Rehabilitation. Dutta, who wants prostitution to be regarded as bona fide sex work, says, “We are against rehabilitation because it implies this profession is bad. You can’t just put some woman on stage, give her a sewing machine and say she is rehabilitated.”

Instead, DMSC helps women save money, organizes loan programs and savings and credit schemes, and trains their children in professions like electricians and beauticians. Funded by the government’s National AIDS Control Organization, DMSC got an unexpected shot in the arm when Melinda Gates showed up at the office this year. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has promised $200 million to combat AIDS in India, and DMSC is being considered as a potential model program to be replicated in other Indian cities.

A U.S. National Intelligence Council report put the number of HIV-infected people in India between 5 and 8 million in 2002, and rising exponentially. In Sonagachi, where some 9,000 women work the streets and brothels, however, Dutta says condom usage has climbed to 80 percent and infection rates are holding steady at about 8 to 11 percent. (HIV prevalence in prostitutes in other cities has reportedly reached 30-50 percent.)
Kolkata’s mayor even proposed issuing prostitutes trade licenses in return for mandatory testing. Sex workers turned down the proposal, believing testing would be a human rights violation, driving sex workers underground and away from STD clinics.

Sex workers feel that if they organize together they can break the stranglehold that police and pimps have on their lives. “Before we were alone and didn’t have the courage to say anything when we were being exploited,” says Rama Debnath, a sex worker who is also president of DMSC. “Now, if the cops pick up one woman, 10 women will go to the police station and demand to know why.”

The police are part of a criminal nexus that makes Sonagachi a one-way street for many women. Some of the women have their own rooms, while others split their earnings with those who have rooms. But many of the floating prostitutes or chhokris, says Dutta, end up as veritable “bonded labor who never get to pay back the principal on the money they owe.” Existing outside the margins of legal society, many of the women do not get room receipts and end up being vulnerable to evictions. Trade in unlicensed liquor in the neighborhood adds to the crime. Moneylenders typically charge exorbitant rates of interest and often end up holding the women’s jewelry. “And when the women are old, they typically have nothing,” says Debnath. “They wash dishes and work as maids to get by.”

But some social workers complain that under the guise of HIV prevention the women of DMSC are promoting sex workers’ rights and legalized prostitution. Dutta maintains the two are connected. When cops raid Sonagachi and fewer customers show up, desperate women accustomed to turning three tricks a day are less likely to demur when the madam says “Set the babu down properly,” a euphemism for unprotected sex. What Dutta hopes is that when they regard what they do as work, not something on par with robbery, it will bring a certain change in attitude. “When sex workers don’t think their work is bad, that’s when they can say no, when they can insist on condoms,” says Dutta.

But not everyone agrees. “I don’t feel like we can call this ‘work’ in a South Asian context,” says Indrani Sinha, whose non-government organization Sanlaap also works with sex workers and their children. Sinha says, beyond prostitutes the sex trade here involves a criminal nexus of cops, neighborhood hoodlums, traffickers, and crooked politicians. “There is so much exploitation here that by calling it work we just empower the pimps, madams, and traffickers. The western world is saying the brothel manager is part of the business. But we have to deal with the crime somewhere.”


Sanlaap’s offices are on the other side of the city, in a resolutely middle class South Kolkata neighborhood, surrounded by homes and banks and a cake shop. The posters on the wall feature icons like Sachin Tendulkar exhorting people to speak out against violence on women. Sinha, who started Sanlaap after years with agencies like Oxfam and Lutheran World Services, approaches the issue of prostitution from a women’s development perspective. She says she doesn’t want to focus on moral/immoral issues. “What the women told me they need was something for the children who hang around while they are mothers are with clients,” says Sinha. “What the women said was we don’t want our children to get into our shoes.”

Sanlaap has partnered with the government to take care of rescued children and underage prostitutes. It runs immunization programs and helps provide pre- and post-natal care. But most of all, it believes in giving information to the women. “If a woman is above 18, then we should tell her what’s good or bad, we should give her the information and knowledge and then she can decide,” says Sinha. But she says just calling prostitution sex work will not remove the crime swirling around the profession.

She says police have told her that even if prostitution gets legalized, they will still raid red light areas looking for criminals and minors. DMSC is trying to forestall police raids by establishing its own board to, for instance, track new women to make sure they are not minors who have been coerced into prostitution.

“We need to start making distinctions between trafficking (forced or coerced labor) and consensual sex work,” says Shohini Ghosh, an academic and director of a documentary on sex workers, Tales of the Night Fairies. We must support those who choose to be in sex work and also those who choose to leave it. Much like marriage!

Rama Debnath says she went into “the line” after marriage because it paid better than working in houses.

But Sinha says consent isn’t a meaningful word “when we are talking about desperately poor women with no options.” She recalls a 12-year-old girl who ran away with a client and returned two years later with a baby. “Where is the choice in that?” She says there are some root causes of prostitution that need to be addressed. “No land, no job, no skill, no power to say yes or no, girl children discriminated against—all of these lead to where the women end up,” says Sinha.

But one thing the HIV crisis has done is give sex work an unprecedented visibility. Not just female sex workers but also male sex workers who have their own problems. “They are regarded with disgust,” says Debnath. “Their problems are police harassment, they don’t have a regular brothel, they work on the streets.” The women of DMSC, in an unprecedented gesture, have opened their doors to male sex workers.


This new-found visibility has meant sex workers organize their own Shanti Utsav festival. It has also meant the men and women of Sonagachi now show up on television or at meetings with ministers on their own instead of having someone else speak for them. Dutta remembers the sex workers were among the first groups to protest against the Taliban after 9/11. “HIV has definitely allowed us to bring these issues to the fore,” says Dutta.

On the other side, attitudes towards sex workers are changing slowly. Shohini Ghosh remembers how activists fighting to have prostitution recognized as sex work were accused of playing into the hands of the global mafia. “Underlying all this is a great discomfort with women having sex for money and with more than one man,” says Ghosh. When she started her work with prostitutes in Sanlaap after working with fisherwomen, some of her friends left Sanlaap, says Sinha. She remembers her mother saying, “I gave you your education for this?” Sinha remembers how perturbed her mother was one night when one of the women was supposed to stop by the house. But when she did come over, her mother chatted with her without realizing who she was. When it was pointed out, Sinha’s mother exclaimed, “Huh? They are not really that different from us.”

It’s a distinction Rama Debnath knows too well. For her the battle doesn’t stop with gaining the right to be called sex worker. “Whether it’s someone in Sonagachi or a housewife in your home, we are all women,” says Debnath. “I want to remove that distinction. I don’t even want to be called a sex worker. I just want to be called a worker.”

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.