The Sex Workers Of Sonagachi, Kolkata : The Power Of The Collective

Posted: November 12, 2015

The sex workers of Sonagachi, Kolkata are changing their lives through collective efforts. Here’s how.

Sex workers in India and across the world have been fighting for decriminalization. With the number of sex workers growing, it is unfortunate that the debate hasn’t broadened to include their voices. Often debates and negotiations of sex workers rights focus on morality and Indian culture over their experiences and issues. In this context, rape of sex workers is seen as impossible; agency of the workers to say no to clients is seen as improbable. However, sex workers have been arguing and lobbying to have their voices heard and the situation is improving.

Self-Determination of Sex Workers

While talking about sex workers, the dominant mainstream narrative is one of exploitation and pity. However, through self-determination sex workers are changing this narrative. Part of the problem lies in the conflating of two different concerns of trafficking for sex work and sex work as a profession. While taking back their narratives, sex workers hope to highlight the difference.

In one of the famous red light districts of India, Songachi in Kolkata, sex workers have formed a union to fight for their rights. “Sex workers’ rights are human rights”. While this seems obvious to some of us, the sex workers themselves have a lot of difficulty in asserting their social and legal rights. Discrimination is a regular part of their lives. The documentary Tale of the Night Fairies explores the ways the collective has worked on the fulfilment of sex workers’ rights.

To fight for their rights and to articulate their struggles and aspirations, thousands of sex workers formed the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee or the Durbar Women’s Collaborative Committee (DMSC) an initiative that emerged from the Sonagachi HIV/AIDS Intervention Project. A collective of men, women and transgendered sex workers, DMSC demand decriminalisation of adult sex work and the right to form a trade union.

Power of the collective

The victories of the union are many. They have been able to fight for their dignity in the locality. Earlier when sex workers went to police stations to complain about rape, the cops retorted by refusing to register complaints on grounds that sex workers couldn’t complain of rape. This situation has changed because of DMSC. The collective has created an environment where the men, women and transgenders come together in solidarity for their sisters and brothers from the community. Earlier, the members could be singled out and humiliated or insulted. But DMSC changed all that. They spoke up against the discrimination and even staged protests together.

The fundamental rights of the constitution guarantee human rights for all which includes the right to equality and a life of dignity. This collective is working towards the realisation of these rights by empowering sex workers to know their rights and providing them access to health care and their legal rights.

Recently, in a bid to support human rights of sex workers, Amnesty International wrote a draft policy on sex work urging governments and countries to respect and uphold the rights of sex workers. The draft policy was conducted with research and meetings with stakeholders especially sex workers groups across four countries.

Cover image via Wikipedia

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