Thursday, January 20, 2011

A co-op empowers sex workers in Calcutta

An alternative newspaper from British Columbia is running a fascinating series about sex workers in Calcutta. The Tyree is running excerpts from the book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital. The book spends a chapter exploring a co-operative that helps to organize and empower women who work in the Calcutta sex trade.

The sex trade co-operative looks after health needs first, providing condoms for sex workers and doing regular testing for diseases. The co-op also helps the women work for themselves instead of for pimps and gangs. Tools such as micro-credit and micro-savings established within the co-op help the women avoid being forced into servitude for someone else.

From The Tyree, our snippet grabs from the second segment in the book adaptation series. Author John Restakis describes how the co-op was established.

Key to the tale is Dr. Smarjit Jana. When the World Health Organization asked Jana and his team to lead an AIDS prevention project in Sonagachi in 1992, he already knew well the dire health risks faced by that neighbourhood's sex workers. An epidemiologist teaching at the All India Institute, Jana had just finished the first baseline survey of Sonagachi's sex worker population, finding of the 450 women surveyed, 45 per cent used occasional contraception in some form with only 27 per cent using it regularly. Only 2.7 per cent were able to insist on the use of condoms. Laboratory results showed that of 360 sex workers tested, over 80 per cent were found infected with one or more STDs while about one per cent tested positive for HIV infection and four of these had syphilis. The question uppermost in the minds of the women surveyed: "Will I be able to have a child?"

Now Jana and his team took on launching the STD/HIV Intervention Program (SHIP). It had three components: the provision of health services; information and education on sexually transmitted diseases; and promotion of condom usage among sex workers.

In addition, Jana's SHIP team remained clear about their approach. They believed that sex work was a profession and had to be seen as legitimate. No attempts were made to rescue or rehabilitate sex workers, nor were moral positions taken on their work. The emphasis instead was on improving the material conditions of sex workers and the communities in which they live and work.

Health was central to this task. For sex workers, a regular checkup is an occupational necessity as the risk of STD or HIV infection (or re-infection) is an occupational health problem that they constantly face. Isolated and easily intimidated, the women were often powerless to resist demands from men to have unprotected sex.

USHA Multipurpose Co-operative was finally incorporated on June 21, 1995. Its objectives were:

• enable the sex workers to generate a sustainable economy
• act as a credit co-operative and give loans to members
• sell daily necessities at reasonable rates
• supply condoms to various organizations who run STD/HIV intervention programmes
• develop self-employment opportunities for sex workers
• take up activities for the uplift of sex workers and their families

From 1995 to 1998, USHA had only 200 members. Women were fearful. The co-ops attempt to establish a credit system for sex workers was a direct challenge to the moneylenders and their sponsors and their reaction was swift and brutal. Dr. Jana and his staff received death threats. Bombs were used against co-op organizers and outreach workers. Sex workers who had joined the co-op were savagely beaten up.

Most vicious of all were the "youth clubs" who were controlled by landlords and who were in league with the loan sharks who financed their activities. These included "community festivals," religious events and the collection of puja (offerings) for temples and assorted Hindu deities. All these activities were part of the trappings of local power in the district and a cover for the more sinister role these youth played in intimidating and harassing the women on behalf of the local bosses. It took two years of determined struggle to dissolve the fear that sex workers had of joining the co-op.

Today, of the 16,000 sex workers that work the area, 12,800 are members of USHA. Through their membership in USHA, sex workers have been able to save money, take out loans and even invest in businesses and property as a means of transiting from sex work, particularly in their older years. Without access to credit and the ability to save money, sex work is akin to bonded slavery.

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